Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A Concert You Might Take a Friend To

The International Orange Chorale of San Francisco is giving what sounds like a fantastic concert this coming Sunday, June 5, 2005, at 8 p.m.

It's built around Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir, and includes works in French by Debussy, Hindemith, Janequin, Sermisy, and de Lassus, as well as works in other languages by Part, Takemitsu, and Sarah George (a commission by IOCSF).

It's at the Presidio Interfaith Chapel in San Francisco. I hope to be there.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

I Took My Mother to the Orchestra....

...for an all-R. Strauss concert at San Francisco Symphony. Read her thoughts on the concert and mine.

Updated May 26:You can hear this concert live on KDFC on Tuesday, May 31, at 8 p.m. Pacific Time, and decide what you think of it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Really Bad News for the Classical Recording Business

The London Appeals Court decision against Hyperion Records, in a lawsuit bought by musicologist Lionel Sawkins, will seriously affect Hyperion's future and will surely make other labels extremely leery of running into issues with other editors. Jessica Duchen broke the story in the blogosphere. For other detailed commentary, see On an Overgrown Path and The Rest is Noise.

Updated May 25, 2005:A. C. Douglas has worthwhile remarks on the ruling, as does Tim Rutherford-Johnson.

Updated May 26:Added link to Jessica Duchen; corrected Tim's name.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Sex and the Young Violinist

A few weeks ago, I asked a newish friend what kind of music he likes. "Classical, especially Bach; rock; some jazz," he replied. The next day I handed him Sergey Schepkin's Goldberg Variations recording and, for fun, Dave Evans's brilliant solo guitar record, Sad Pig Dance. (No, it is not bluegrass; do not believe what Tower Records is trying to tell you. Just buy the record, which is sui generis.) I mentioned that when he was done with those, he could have the great Nathan Milstein in the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin. Oh, he had a recording of some of those, by Lara St. John, he told me.

Never heard of her, I said. He pointed me to her Web site, where I browsed to the page for the solo Bach CD.

Yes, I was startled by that cover. I took myself over to rec.music.classical.recordings to see what the mavens thought, and also emailed a knowledgable collector friend. I was quite curious about how good a player she was.

There were some positive comments on r.m.c.r., and eventually Bill wrote back:
I was not at all impressed by her "showpieces" CD, nor her Bach solo CD (and I think that I commented to that effect on RMCR). The concerto CD, though, is very, very good. I wouldn't quite put it in the class of my favorites (Grumiaux, Manze for HIP), but it's pretty impressive playing, and she's vastly better looking than either Manze or Grumiaux :-).

And there's the rub. What's going on with the cover of that solo Bach record? What exactly is being sold, and to whom?

Take a look at the photo again. It's not just the pose. It's that she's shot to look like a teenager - or younger - and she was 25 at the time.

Can a female musician be taken seriously when she appears on a record cover dressed in her violin? Is that what the critics and reviews should be commenting on? (And some of them did: "...she looks like a bedraggled nymphet," from Lloyd Dykk; "She looks about 10....maybe 12," from The Globe and Mail.) What on earth were her publicist and the designer thinking, anyway?

Whatever they were thinking, they kept thinking it:
  • The cover for Gypsy features a leather-clad St. John with nothing on under the jacket and a sultry gaze on her face.

  • On the cover of the Bach concerto album, she's tossing her hair about and showing a lot of shoulder.

  • St. John's most recent album, from Sony, has more of the disheveled-come-hither look on the cover (depending on your point of view, you may be just as concerned that it's all "crossover" arrangements of bits of J.S. Bach, aaargh).

  • St. John appeared in Menz magazine (and on the cover) talking about various things, including music, but mostly about other stuff.

I'm curious what kind of career St. John wants to have and whether this style of self-presentation is furthering that. I'm extremely curious about how others see her and her playing. Are those cover photos selling CDs, or...?

It's extremely difficult to imagine a male violinist, even a young and handsome one, being presented this way. Imagine Joshua Bell on a CD cover dressed in his violin - a little difficult, isn't it? (Yes, the violin would presumably be oriented a bit differently.) Can you imagine him or any other male classical player being marketed in this way? It's hard for me to imagine, anyway, and I have to say I'm sorry that a talented player is marketing herself this way.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mystery Music

Can you identity this charming excerpt, which is part of the "Hansel and Gretel" ballet that Ronn Guidi created for the Oakland Ballet? That is, the score is compiled from various sources; can you identify this bit (work or composer)? If so, please email me (sunbear at well dot com) with your ideas.

Take a Friend to the Orchestra, Part II

My TAFTO contribution is up now! Many thanks to Drew for the kind words; thanks also to Zaka Ashraf for giving me a couple of ideas for the essay.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Civics Lesson

A few weeks back, A.C. Douglas zeroed in on one paragraph of a posting by Greg Sandow, and used it as the springboard for 1) a lament about the state of classical music and 2) an attack on Greg.

I'd suggest that anyone interested in orchestra management and the audience this take a look at these postings, in the following order:
  1. Greg's original posting, containing some background information about a concert at which Semyon Bychkov substituted for an indisposed Christoph von Dohnanyi, and a question posed by Greg about reader interest in financial questions possibly raised by the repertory Bychkov conducted

  2. Drew McManus's response to Greg's question

  3. Greg's follow-up

  4. ACD's first blast at Greg and subsequent comments

What's interesting about this is that ACD neatly elides (or avoids completely, or ignores, or hides) the whole point of Greg's posting. Let me elucidate.

Greg is not claiming that what an audience is or should be really interested in is gossip about personalities. That's ACD's take on it, for his own purposes. To quote ACD's mischaracterization of Greg, "See? Classical music fans should be no different from the celebrity- and celebrity-gossip-besotted morons who read publications like Entertainment Weekly."

Note that what Greg actually discussed was the process of switching the repertory von Dohnanyi had originally chosen for the repertory Bychkov wanted to conduct, and how the New York Philharmonic had paid for an expensive piece like the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony. What this has to do with celebrities or celebrity gossip is beyond me. We are not talking about whether the second percussionist is having an affair with the second-stand, inside-chair violist, or whether the conductor is about to make his Nth marriage to a violinist 35 years his junior.

What Greg is saying and Drew is seconding is that the financial operations of musical institutions such as orchestras are something like the financial operations of governments, and that audiences have every right (and, to my mind, every responsibility) to be interested in how an orchestra manages its money and chooses its repertory.

I pay taxes, and for that reason I try to pay some attention to how my state and local governments spend that money. How much goes for schools? How much goes for paving roads? What about health care? I read budgets, and I write to my elected representatives.

I also make contributions to local arts institutions. For that reason, I try to stay informed about how the institutions spend that money. It's not gossip to wonder why the Opera paid $3 million for "rebranding" a few years ago, for example, or to think that perhaps the money could have been spent better.

It's a matter of civics. It shouldn't be characterized as anything else.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

How KDFC Could Make a Difference

KDFC could play a real variety of music, instead of sticking to the 18th to 20th c. tonal straight-and-narrow. There's a serious problem with a classical music station that doesn't play opera or any other vocal music (except for that hour or two of sacred music Sunday mornings); that plays more Finzi than Berg, Schoenberg, and Webern put together; that plays nothing new or local unless it happens to be on the SFS broadcast; that rarely seems to play full compositions any more; that plays hardly any chamber music; that rarely plays anything that could be characterized as other than pleasant background music.

Give those students you supposedly care so much about something a little challenging to listen to, will you? You're part of the problem.

Updated 5/17/05: Minor typographical corrections.

A Real Difference for School Music?

If you're on KDFC's mailing list, or if you listen to the station, you know that during this past week, KDFC made a big deal of the fact that the station was giving away $20,000 for school music programs. Or, rather, it was giving away 20 $1,000 grants. This was under the rubric of "Save School Music Week." Their claim, emailed to me, was these grants would make "a huge difference" to the schools or programs receiving the grants.

I'd like you to think about what $1,000 might mean to a particular program, and then think about what "a huge difference" would really be.

$1,000 is enough to buy a few student-grade instruments; it's enough to buy quite a lot of sheet music if it's assumed that each piece costs, say, $3.50. Let's say a rehearsal pianist charges $50 per hour - we have 20 hours for an accompanist. Maybe a school gets a rate of $25 per hour, so that's 40 hours. $1,000 won't pay much toward getting music teachers into the schools, or providing instruments like double basses or timpani or tubas that a school orchestra needs. It won't buy a good piano, though it would rent an upright for some time.

What would a good music program really cost for a school? To me, that means every student in a school would get from two to five hours per week of musical instruction. That could include singing in a chorus or playing in a band or orchestra. It would mean offering basic music theory, and instrumental music lessons. (I took free clarinet lessons in the fifth grade; that didn't take. In the ninth grade I started on the flute; that took!)

We're talking about having two or three full-time teachers on staff. Let's say that costs $40,000/year per teacher in salary and benefits. Then there has to be some infrastructure - dedicated rehearsal rooms, for example. Music has to be purchased or rented.

It's nice that KDFC has $20,000 to give away. Even as a single block grant, it wouldn't go that far to "save school music." I'm not saying the recipient programs shouldn't be grateful; every penny counts. But what I'd like is for everyone in California to think about the real reason for the death of music and art programs in the public schools of this state: Proposition 13.

Since 1978, California has gone from being first or second among the states in public-school spending on a per-student basis to being somewhere between 47th and 50th. We're down there with Alabama and Mississippi in school spending. The California public schools have gone from being the pride of the state to a source of shame.

We got ourselves into this; if we had the political will, we could get ourselves out. The fact is, Californians would rather have money in their pockets today than have an educated citizenry tomorrow. And we've got the crumbling school system, and the death of music and arts programs, to show for that.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Take a Friend to the Orchestra Month

It's Take a Friend to the Orchestra Month at Adaptistration, where short essays related to how we can all contribute to audience development have been appearing since May 2. The idea is simple - that the enthusiasm, love, and knowledge of concert-goers is one way to get new listeners in the doors.

The TAFTO FAQ has everything you need to know; there are also links to the essays, which are all interesting and worth reading. (Sam Bergman's is, in addition, hilarious; let me confess that YES, that was me dropping the full score of Naive and Sentimental Music between movements during its San Francisco Symphony premiere.)

I hope you'll read the essays, and even more, I hope you'll take a friend to the orchestra, this month or next, or even to a concert or the opera.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Charles Rosen Lecture & Concert, San Franciso, April 23, 2005

I read Charles Rosen's The Classical Style in the late 1970s, not so long after it was first published. I loved it then and still recommend it to people all the time. It's gracefully written, erudite, witty, and penetrating; Rosen has not only an excellent analytical mind but a performer's long experience with many of the works he wrote about. And the book's broad synthesis was a marvelous anodyne to modern analytical tendencies, which have tended to eschew discussions of style in favor of discussions of the Urlinie.

Rosen's April 23 lecture at the Palace of the Legion of Honor was much of a piece with The Classical Style and his other books. He ranged over the whole of Beethoven's late work, from the piano sonatas to the symphonies to the quartets to the Diabelli Variations, discussing Bach, Mendelssohn, and Mozart in passing and playing all manner of musical examples from memory. There was some hyperbole, and much wit and insight.

He didn't say a word about the last three sonatas, but the program notes for the concert were taken from his own Short Companion to the sonatas. Overall, the concert itself struck me as excellent, with intermittent moments of greatness and quite a few really beautiful things. I loved especially his work in the left hand, which brought out the bass lines and inner voices without blurring or obscuring anything. But somehow the whole fell short of transcendence, and I guess that's what I'd like in late Beethoven, especially in op. 111. Op. 109 was generally weak, op. 110 much better, op. 111 mostly well-played but ultimately disappointing.

There are some specific problems I can point to. I thought Rosen almost never played softly enough; I couldn't tell if it was an especially loud piano in a very tiny theater, or if he was being extremely literal about the fairly narrow range of notated dynamics. This is a real problem in the second movement of op. 111, where the arietta needs to sing and needs to have lots of room for emotional and dynamic expansion. It wasn't quiet enough; just as bad, he took the theme at a tempo I was sure he could not sustain through the 2nd and 3rd variations. Indeed, he took var. 1 at the same speed as the arietta, then slowed down for the subsequent variations.

Throughout the concert I felt like the rests weren't given enough time to make an impact; I didn't like the way he launched into the first movement of op. 111 the second he sat down at the keyboard (the audience was still settling down after an intermission); I wasn't often touched, and there just seemed a lot more to admire than to love about the playing and interpretation. Yes, it's very well thought out (no surprise there) and logical and orderly and still....there was something missing.

For other views, Rich Scheinin of the Mercury-News was very unhappy with the previous evening's concert in San Jose; Renato Rodolfo-Sioson has a thoughtful review of the lecture and concert in San Francisco Classical Voice.