Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Abridging the Classics

Today's Times brings a report that the Metropolitan Opera plans to present a 90-minute version of The Magic Flute. ACD is predictably up in arms over the matter.

My friend Bill Kasimer is annoyed, too, and presents better reasons than ACD. Here's what he had to say about it on

Why is it necessary to abridge Magic Flute? It's short enough already. I took my son to a performance of it at the Met, and he didn't have any trouble sitting through the whole thing. He was seven at the time. A few months later, I took him to a "family performance" of the opera, and he bitched about the cuts.

If the Met really wants to be "family friendly", they should schedule Sunday matinee performances, and start some of the evening performances earlier, so that they end at a reasonable hour. Or how about a "family series", a small number of weekday performances that begin around 4:00, with a longer intermission for dinner, and then finishing up early enough to get kids to bed a reasonable hour?

It'll never happen.

I have to agree with Bill on all of those points, although I also understand the reasons the Met might not be able go with his ideas - union contracts, scheduling issues, etc. They're still great ideas.

I don't especially mind the abridgement, myself. There's a long history of cutting operas in performance, for better or for worse, depending on circumstances, conductorial fancy, the demands of running an opera house, current fashion, and current scholarship. San Francisco Opera has had a portable one-hour, piano-only production of Hansel und Gretel for decades; it's played at schools and mostly during the holiday season. Last year, Berkeley Opera put on a bang-up one-evening production of the Ring that I, for one, loved. My partner, not much of a Wagner fan herself, thought it a ton of fun and even flirted with the idea of going to the Seattle Ring with me this year. So, sure, there's a place in the world for abridgement. It does not mean the sky is falling, unless, of course, you think any change means the sky is falling.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Head. Wall. Bang.

Earlier this week, Anne Midgette had an excellent article in the NY Times about the disappearing classical music audience, how orchestras sell tickets, and related issues. (It ran on June 25 and will be free for one week from that date.)

Today's Times prints several letters to the editor responding to Midgette's article. I'm happy to see a music professor lamenting the fossilized classical concert format and calling for greater flexibility in programming, and a historian discussing the marginalization of classical music in the United States.

It's dismaying, though, to read the claims by a professional violinist - a member of the Houston Symphony - that critics "castigate" performers who play masterpieces and that the art form tries to "relegate its masterpieces to the trash heap."

It's too bad the Times doesn't ask letter-writers to provide evidence to back up their claims. Just who are the critics the letter writer is thinking of? Where are the performing organizations that are banning Beethoven? (And why would she mind if, say, a new music ensemble eschews 18th century music?) How can an art form do anything to its masterpieces, anyway? Isn't she talking about musical institutions and performing organizations?

Now, I have to confess that I myself, a sometime critic, have castigated the San Francisco Symphony a couple of times for its programming. I thought it was a mistake to match the "Emperor" concerto with Webern and Hartmann, and the Beethoven violin concerto with Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music. My problem wasn't with programming Beethoven, however; it was with programming, in general, where the works don't illuminate each other in some interesting or telling way. (Yes, I realize this kind of programming sometimes has to do with which soloists are available when, what they want to play, who is conducting, and so on. There's no way to please everybody!)

But it's truly unfortunate that a professional violinist apparently doesn't have an interest in creating a living classical musical culture in this country. That means programming new and 20th centurey music, supporting living composers, and communicating with the audience about new music and why it's important - not just playing familiar music by the safely dead.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Readings for a New Opera 3

From The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 274-275:

The following Saturday Oppenheimer discussed the discovery [of fission] in a letter to a friend at Caltech, outlining all the experiments [Luis] Alvarez and others had accomplished during the week and speculating on applications:

"The U business is unbelievable. We first saw it in the papers, wired for more dope, and have had a lot of reports since... In how many ways does the U come apart? At random, as one might guess, or only in certain ways? And most of all, are there many neutrons that come off during the splitting, or from the excited pieces? If there are, then a 10 cm cube of U deuteride (one would need the D [deuterium, heavy hydrogen] to slow them without capture) should be quite something. What do you think? It is I think exciting, not in the rare way of positrons and mesotrons, but in a good honest practical way."

The next day, in a letter to George Uhlenbeck at Columbia, "quite something" became "might very well blow itself to hell." One of Oppenheimer's students, the American theoretical physicist Philip Morrison, recalls that "when fission was discovered, within perhaps a week there was on the blackboard in Robert Oppeneimer's office a drawing -- a very bad, an execrable drawing--of a bomb."

Readings for a New Opera 2

Occasional quotations from whatever I'm reading as background material for Doctor Atomic; this, again, from The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 259-260:
When she was thirty-one, in 1909, [Lise] Meitner had met Albert Einstein for the first time at a scientific conference in Salzburg. He "gave a lecture on he development of our views regarding the nature of radiation. At that time, I certainly did not yet realize the full implications of his theory of relativity." She listened eagerly. In the course of the lecture Einstein used the theory of relativity to derive his equation E=mc2, with which Meitner was then unfamiliar. Eistein showed thereby how to calculate the conversion of mass into energy. "These two facts," she reminisced in 1964, "were so overwhelmingly new and surprising that, to this day, I remember the lecture very well."

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sing-In Season

The Oakland Symphony Chorus's summer sing-in series starts in just a couple of weeks. It will run from July 12 to August 23 on Tuesday nights at 7 p.m., at First Coventant Church, 4000 Redwood Road, Oakland. Each sing-in is $10, or $60 for the 7-event series.

Works include the Brahms Requiem (July 12, led by Vance George); the Bach Magnificat and excerpts from the Dvořák Requiem (July 26, led by Michael Morgan), The Creation, by Haydn (August 16, led by Bruce Lamott), and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, (August 23, led by Lynne Morrow).

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Events for a New Opera

The San Francisco Opera Web site now has an extensive listing of events related to the premiere of Doctor Atomic. (It is also mirrored at the Doctor Atomic Web site.)

The calendar starts in July, when the Simnuke Project attempts to simulate a nuclear explosion in the Nevada desert. This will be followed by a gallery show in San Francisco about the simulated explosion. In August, there is a San Francisco Opera Guide celebration on the Peninsula, and the Commonwealth Club looks at world security issues on August 3 in a round-table discussion that includes Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

September and October bring a host of mouth-watering events:

  • The Exploratorium has a talk featuring Richard Rhodes in conversation with John Adams and Peter Sellars, on Tuesday, September 13 at 7 p.m.

  • The cast and production team talk about the opera at Herbst Theater, S.F., on Thursday, September 22, at 6 p.m.

  • The Consortium for the Arts & Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, will sponsor a free evening symposium, at Wheeler Hall on the UCB Campus, called "Science and the Soul: Robert Oppenheimer and Doctor Atomic." John Adams and Peter Sellars will talk; there will be a musical preview; Dean of Physical Sciences Mark Richards, Physics Professor Marvin Cohen, and Artistic Director of the San Francisco Opera Pamela Rosenberg will also partcipate. (Monday, September 26, 8 pm)

  • The UCB Art Department will sponsor a lecture on "the U.S. government competition for a monument at the site of the first atomic bomb test" on September 22.

  • A composer's colloquium with John Adams is planned, but the date hasn't been announced yet.

  • On all Wednesdays and Sundays in October, the Pacific Film Archive will show films related to the bomb, the effects of nuclear war, and "the Faustian aspects of science and technology."

  • On October 15, there will be a reading at UCB by 22 poets of new work created for the occasion.

  • Amazing Light: Visions for Discovery is a three-day symposium, October 6 - 8, in honor of the 90th birthday of Charles Townes, inventor of the laser, and in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Einstein's accomplishments in 2005 and the 2005 World Year of Physics.

  • The Jung Institute has a one-day event on October 8 with John Adams called "The Faust Myth and the Archetype of the Apocalypse."

  • In conjunction with the Word Year of Physics, the American Physical Society will sponsor a number of events related to Doctor Atomic, but none of these are enumerated at the SFO Web site and a very curosry look at the APS Web site didn't yield anything yet either.

There's more detail to come, I'm sure. And I will be at many of these events.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Usability and the Orchestra Web Site

Last September, Drew McManus reviewed the Web sites of some 70 American orchestras. San Francisco Symphony's ranked number 8 at the time.

If they're that good, I hate to think of what the other Web sites are like. I've run into several issues at the SFS Web site recently:

  • The Search box simply doesn't work. Try, for example, searching for the term Thomas, which, for obvious reasons, should be returned dozens of times. Searching for it returns no results at all. Neither does Tilson. Neither does Gershwin, whose musicals Of Thee I Sing and Let Them Eat Cake make up this week's SFS program.

  • Purchasing tickets on line now requires a login name and password, a change from a year or so back. I set up these credentials at some point, but have forgotten them. I tried to reset the password, but the promised email with information on how to do that never arrived. Email to was not answered.

    That's right: the Symphony has made it harder to purchase tickets over the Web. (I wound up phoning the last time I needed to buy tickets.)

  • Apropos of yesterday's posting about Keeping Score, I tried to find a press release on the Web site about the choice of Fresno. Unfortunately, the last press release is dated May 27, and it's about casting updates for this week's program.

SFS could be doing better than this. Maybe next year!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Keeping Score in Fresno?!

Buried in David Wiegand's S. F. Chronicle arts column today is this item:

Score one more for Keeping Score, the San Francisco Symphony's multimedia program designed to build new audiences. Last week, the Symphony received a $1. 65 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation that is part of the $10 million challenge grant from the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund. The first part of the Irvine Foundation money will support the program's educational component

The pilot program for Keeping Score's educational component will start in Fresno this next school year. Twenty teachers from grades kindergarten through 12 have been chosen to participate and will use the Keeping Score multimedia programs to add classical music to the core curriculum.

The teachers will be in San Francisco next week for training sessions.

It would be so interesting to know why Fresno was chosen as the pilot program's location, but darned if I can find anything on the Symphony's Web site. Was it lack of interest on the part of the San Francisco public schools? Lack of music programs in the S. F. public schools? Lack of interest on the part of the Symphony?

Readings for a New Opera 1

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

New Wagnerian Voices

I've been lucky enough, in the last year or so, to hear three new major Wagnerian voices.

"Or so" is because I first heard Linda Watson in 2003, singing Kundry in the Seattle Opera's Parsifal production. She was a vivid stage presence and sang movingly; I was uncertain about her upper register at the time, which seemed overly pushed. Not any more, if her performance last week at Berkeley Symphony Orchestra is any indication. Read my review of that concert here. No, I wasn't so happy with her interpretation of the Strauss, but I was plenty happy with her voice qua voice.

San Francisco Opera's 2004-05 season brought two other significant debuts. I'd heard Christine Brewer in Mahler's Eighth Symphony at San Francisco Symphony a few years ago, but she worked miracles in the Runnicles 50th Birthday Gala, singing with a ruby-red depth of tone and enormous alertness to the words.

Nina Stemme, who appeared in that concert as well as a passionate Sieglinde, debuted on stage as Senta earlier in the fall, and gave a spectacular account of that role. The production was too static and didn't give the graceful and physically intense Stemme nearly enough to do, but oh, my! At the end of the opera, she put on one of the most impressive vocal displays I've ever heard in the house.

Brewer will be back this fall for Fidelio at SF Opera, and her Web page at Askonas Holt says she'll be singing Isolde here in the future. Be still, my heart!

And I want to hear Stemme and Watson again soon, too.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Making the Rounds

Tim Rutherford-Johnson tossed this week's meme to anyone who wanted to respond. That'll be me, for one.

Total volume of music on my computer

Hardly any, measurable in megabytes rather than gigabytes; I'm not even sure what's there.

I'm an iPod holdout. My listening patterns aren't suited to carrying around that volume of music, I don't want to spend time ripping my CD collection, the iTunes software isn't well-suited to the kind of music I listen to (says my friend who spent several years as an engineer at Apple - and who listens to the same kind of music I do), and I've got CD players every place I want to listen.

Last CD I bought

An order from Tower arrived on May 31. It consists of:

  • Four Savall Cabal CDs:

    • Ninna Nanna
    • Homenatge al Misteri D'Elx
    • Cantigas de Santa Maria
    • Music for the Spanish Kings

  • A CD of works by Paul Moravec, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tempest Fantasy (purchased on the advice of Terry Teachout)

  • Biber violin sonatas performed by Andrew Manze with Nigel North and John Toll
A final Hesperion CD, Villancicos y Danzas Criollas, isn't here yet.

Before that - Vol. 2 of the complete César Vezzani series that is in process by Marston Records. (NO, I haven't listened to it yet.)

Song currently playing

Nothing at the moment, but the last thing I listened to on May 31 was the Brahms second piano concerto, in performances by Stephen Kovacevich and Artur Schnabel. Today I expect to open some of the CDs listed above.

Five songs I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me

I'm going to have to bend the definition of "song" to mean "song or work or album." This will mostly be music that means a lot to me for one reason or another, but if you'd asked me this question in February or March the answers would have been different.

  • Ezio Pinza singing Leporello's catalog aria from Don Giovanni, the first classical piece I can remember hearing. I listened to it a lot at the tender age of 6 - it's a good thing I didn't understand what he was singing about. Pinza recorded this very late in the day, but late Pinza is better than almost any other bass in his prime. I bonded so firmly with the record that Pinza remains one of my favorite basses and this my favorite performance of the aria.

  • Eva Turner singing "Ritorna vincitor!" from Aida, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, a recording that changed my life profoundly. I heard it for the first time on a CD I bought for my then-housemate; the intense hunt for more Turner recordings that followed turned me into an opera fan; my quest for more information on Turner herself got me onto various opera newsgroups and mailing lists and eventually made me many important friendships. I'm now working on a biography of Turner and have a tiny second career as a music writer. If this hadn't happened, I might have a darkroom in my basement. This was very likely the better outcome (and it happened as a result of numerous doors opening and closing).

    Oh, and it is one hell of a performance. If you've never heard it, do look for it.

  • Le Nozze di Figaro, with its perfect structure and three-hour parade of great music, is almost the only opera I'm willing to see annually. It also appears to be virtually bulletproof, or maybe it just brings out the best in everybody: I've seen five or six different productions that cost from thousands to millions and they all worked, musically, dramatically, and vocally. (I could live with seeing Tristan und Isolde annually if the intensity didn't kill me.)

  • La Bohème persuaded me that I was an idiot not to take Puccini seriously.

  • I've been listening obsessively to the two CDs by Csókolom, a string group that performs what it descrbes as the music of Greater Transylvania. Sometimes Greater Transylvania extends as far as Hollywood and Henry Mancini's theme for the Pink Panther films, but mostly it's wild music from Hungary, Romania, and greater Romany. Anti von Klewitz sings and plays lead violin with bite and a truly remarkable rhythmic sense. The mixture of joy, fierceness, and melancholy is perfect and perfectly suits my state of mind. If only I had the language and vocal range to sing the songs, or knew the steps that go with the dances!

  • Stephen Kovacevich playing the last Beethoven piano sonata, op. 111. He's recorded it several times - this would be the version in the EMI box of the complete sonatas. Passionate, imaginative, and transcendent; one of the greatest recordings I've ever heard of anything.

Right; that's six bullet points, but I had to get something purely instrumental on the list.

Five people to whom I'm passing the baton

Like Tim, to anyone who'd like to take it.