Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sunday Dogblogging

Molly (in front) and her buddy Jupiter hoping for treats yesterday at the Albany Bulb.

Friday, April 28, 2006

She's Right, You Know

Read vilaine fille and weep. And then write letters of complaint (to the NY Phil) and of warning (to Peter Gelb).

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


The TAFTO discussions continue, entertainingly, with participant Marc Geelhoed of Deceptively Simple and TAFTO skeptic A. C. Douglas exchanging broadsides at their respective blogs. I note that ACD seems to have misunderstood something Drew said. The following sentence is not about TAFTO:
If this business ever hopes to reverse the trend in declining ticket sales and lack of participation throughout their communities, they are going to need the help of the people who already care about classical music.

It's about the classical music business.

(Oh, and - I got some mail from Marc that made me laugh. If he says he was joking, I bet he was.)

Updated, April 27: Email to Drew resulted in a one-word reply to this posting: "Bingo!" - meaning yes, "this business" refers to the classical music business, not TAFTO, in the sentence quoted above. Further, ACD has posted Marc's email with the soprano joke. Dry, yes, but funny, at least to me.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Top 10

Steve Hicken (listen) is one of the bloggers featured in the Classical Music section of Top Ten Sources. When I followed the link from listen, I was pleased and surprised to find myself there too, and in excellent company. There's a related category, Top Ten Opera. I'm not quite sure what the eclectically brilliant Steve Smith is doing there; his writing about opera is terrific, but so's his writing about chamber music, the symphonic repertory, jazz, and rock 'n roll.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Chicago Classical Music

Chicago Classical Music is a Web site for classical music lovers in Chicago; it's been established "under the auspices of" the Arts & Business Council of Chicago. The site is very nice; there are bloggers from several arts organizations, a ton of interesting content, lots of comments, many links. Pay a visit!

Alex Shapiro

A month or two back, I ran across notes from the kelp, composer Alex Shapiro's blog, because of referrals to me (thank you, Site Meter!). She had a funny and challenging TAFTO Month contribution last week. And today, I listened to some of her music. You should, too; it is extremely beautiful and interesting. I especially like At the Abyss and Bioplasm. Alex's Web site has a catalogue of recordings, too.

And love the photos of marine objects at notes from the kelp.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Why the iPod Matters

ACD expresses puzzlement about the importance of the iPod and challenges Steve Metcalf on a point he made in an article on New Music Box.

I'm not puzzled.

What the iPod and iTunes have the potential to do is reach new audiences. Alex Ross pointed out some time ago that 14% of the iTunes downloads are classical works. Some of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Minamalist Jukebox series has been made available at iTunes. That means people who weren't in the hall and don't have the CDs of the works performed can get to hear first-class performances of important music on demand. The iPod market is immense, as Steve Metcalf points out in his article, and iPods are cool. Reaching more iPod owners = reaching a new audience. (Ignore ACD's blathering about the coarsening of the culture. We'd have the music he hates, whether that's rock or rap, even if we were still on 78s.)

I'm not sure Alex is right to agree with ACD's point 3, mostly because I so dislike claims that classical musical is "fundamentally elite." There was a mass audience for new music in the 18th and 19th centuries, because there was much less of a distinction between popular music and what we now call classical music. Composers could make a living writing music because there was a market for commissions and performances of new music. (Okay, I do realize that was not the point Alex was responding to.) I absolutely think that for classical music to thrive, we need audiences for new music, and a few superstar composers - household names, whose music interests the public - would be a fine thing indeed.

Update 1, April 14: ACD points approvingly to a Playbill article reporting that some Philadelphia Orchestra concerts will be broadcast on radio. However, the NPR program is not available nationwide; for example, no stations in NYC or the Bay Area carry it. In California, you can hear these programs on the radio only if you live in Bakersfield or Fresno. If the contract included podcasting rights, I could download MP3s of the concerts to my computer. Or to an iPod, if I had one.

Update 2, April 14: ACD has updated his original post and will not respond until I demonstrate better reading comprehension. In that, we're even.

Update 3, April 16: ACD updates again and, in taking issue with Galen Brown, states that "What classical music is today seen as is the music of a superior intellectual and cultural class, and as such deemed elitist and therefore anathema." Can we have some evidence of that, beyond ACD's assertions? ACD regards himself as part of a superior intellectual and cultural class, that is quite clear, but I don't know anyone else who takes that stance. Moreover, I've never seen anything supporting the idea that people who don't go to classical music concerts or who are ignorant of classical music don't do so because they think it's elitist or the music of a superior intellectual or culture class. The people I know who don't go to classical music concerts are intellectual, well-read members of the middle and upper-middle classes, who are aware of, say, the intellectual currents in the literary arts, in politics, in historical thinking, in the scientific world. I can have conversations with almost all of my friends about Dawkins vs. Gould or the history of creationism, but it's a lot harder to find people to talk with about, say, Minimalism from Terry Reilly to John Adams, let alone Thomas Ades.

We'll take, for example, the friend I took to the Symphony last night, to a concert of Webern, Stravinsky, and Ives. She and her partner go to a few classical events a year, mostly in the Cal Performances series in Berkeley, even though they live walking distance from S. F. Civic Center, where the Symphony, Opera, and S. F. Performances have plenty of events. They attend plenty of intellectual and cultural events - go regularly to the museums here, subscribe to two different theater companies, attend City Arts & Lectures (lectures and conversations covering a wide range of political, literary, and cultural matters). There's the time issue, in not attending classical music concerts. There's the question of "what's good?" But believe me, the reasons they're not going to a lot more classical performances have nothing to do with whether classical music is elite or not. I think they'd just laugh at that, as I would.

Update 4, April 16 About ticket prices: I wrote an article for SFCV called The (High) Price of Music. Someone not too familiar with the classical world might not be willing to pay $30 to $129 to sit in Disney Hall listening to the L.A. Phil, but might pay $5 for a concert podcast to hear on that iPod - and then might be willing to spring for a concert ticket.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Alice Coote

Steve Smith writes about Alice Coote's Met debut, as Cherubino in Nozze. I've seen her only once, in the notorious Stuttgart/San Francisco Alcina, which put a marvelous cast of singers into perhaps the most bizarre and incomprehensible production I've ever seen. It was definitely better if you closed your eyes - but I'll never forget Coote's backward glance at Catherine Nagelstad, as Helena Schneidermann rescued her at the very end of the opera.

Wish I could be in New York, even though I have tickets to see Nozze here - twice - June.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

It's TAFTO Time Again!

Once again, Drew McManus is hosting Take a Friend to the Orchestra Month at Adaptistration. Contributors so far include Jerry Bowles of, Marc Geelhoed from Time Out Chicago & the blog Deceptively Simple, Timothy Judd, violinist, Richmond Symphony Orchestra, Kevin Giglinto, Vice President for Sales and Marketing, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Connie Linsler Valentine, Executive Director, Nashville Chamber Orchestra, Pete Matthews, classical music enthusiast & for profit marketing professional, Joe Patti, theatre manager and author of the arts management blog Butts In the Seats, Brian Sacawa, saxophonist and blogger (Sounds Like Now), and Alex Shapiro,composer & author of the Notes from the Kelp.

Take a look, and - take a friend to the orchestra this April.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Appearing at Mills

This Saturday night, April 15, 2006, 8 p.m., the Welsh pianist Iwan Llewelyn-Jones is giving a recital at Mills College. The program consists of Beethoven: Sonata Op.27 No.2 (Moonlight), Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit, Franck: Prelude Choral et Fugue, Chopin: Berceuse Op.57, Scherzo No.2 Op.31, and Fauré: Nocturne No.4 in E flat Op.36.

Admission is $20 general, $10 seniors; the recital is in the Mills College Concert Hall. Mills has an extensive concert series during the school year.

(I have not heard Mr. Jones's playing, but I suspect this recital hasn't gotten much publicity, so I am passing along the information.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Gathering Storm

Last Friday, I caught the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall, in a concert of British music from the 1930s. The ASO plays absolutely fantastic repertory - almost all off-the-beaten-path rarities. Next year's concert series isn't on line at their Web site yet, but includes concerts entitled The Art of the Psalm, with works by Bruckner, Zemlinsky, Liszt, Schreker, and Reger; Symphonic Mexico (Revueltas, Ponce, Chavez); Uncommon Comrades (Vainberg, Shostakovich); and the American premiere (amazingly) of Schreker's opera Der ferne Klang.

Friday's concert consisted of Oration (Concerto Elegiaco), a cello concerto by Frank Bridge, Arthur Bliss's piano concerto, and Ralph Vaughn Williams's Fourth Symphony. The Bliss, with soloist Piers Lane, is virtuosic tripe; a lot of ideas that last 30 to 90 seconds but are never developed or taken anywhere interesting. The Bridge, on the other hand, is an extremely interesting, very modernist piece, lyrical and moderately dissonant, emotionally intense. Matt Haimovitz, who played eloquently and with gorgeous tone, was the cellist, and I'd like very much to hear it again, both for the piece and the performer.

The RVW surprised the hell out of me; it's extremely pessimistic, despairing, gloomy, and definitely not what you'd expect from Mr. English Folk Song himself. There is one moment when I thought it would go all hey-nonny-nonny, in the trio of the scherzo. Careful observers would have seen me glance at the ceiling of Avery Fisher and then put my head in my hands - but then that almost-sweet melody turned out to be bitterly ironic. Elsewhere in the pice, I heard an allusion to "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer," from Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.

I didn't realize RVW had it in him to write a piece this powerful, even though I know and love the Sea Symphony. The fourth is strongly put together and very moving; it ought to get played more, but how often do the English symphonists get played in this country? Right.

I think Leon Botstein, the conductor, is a little on the cautious side. The last two movements of the RVW would have made even more impact if they had been played a bit faster and more incisively.

I hadn't been in Avery Fisher Hall in, uh, well, not since the 1970s. The proportions are odd, with that giant sprawling orchestra section and the teeny shallow balconies. The last remodel left the hall looking ugly, except for the stage area. I remember approving reviews of the design - but the seats are such a bizarre color, sort of mustardy olive, or maybe green tinged too deeply with yellow. Muddy dun? Ick, in any event (and the seats are uncomfortable). The circulation space is dated, as well; the mobile that looks like it's made of giant brass toothpicks is hideous and the display cases (which had a great Elliot Carter exhibit) definitely look old-fashioned. I was also amazed to see a folding table set out at which Matt Haimovitz CDs were being sold; that touch was so amateurish, so high-school...isn't there a gift shop someplace??

Aesthetics aside, I'm not exactly sure why there is so much complaining about the sound. I was in about the 10th or 15th row and found it reasonably warm, with no problems hearing the winds and no sense that the brass ever overpowered the strings. At this point Avery Fisher is no worse, and I thought better than, Davies in SF, where there is an awful lot of undifferentiated blaring, the cellos and basses have very little presence, and if you're in one of the balconies you feel like the orchstra is a BART stop away, sonically speaking.

Update, April 12: The title of this posting is the title the ASO gave the concert I saw. Anne Midgette reviewed the concert in the Times earlier this week.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Speaks for Itself

ACD denies that he defended Bernard Holland, which neatly gets him out of addressing the specific points made by me and Marcus.

Read Marcus's two postings here and here. Read ACD's original reply to me, and judge for yourself.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Learning to Love the Requiem

Mozart's, that is.

No, it's true, I never liked the piece. I sang it some years back and it failed to grow on me, and learning a work for performance normally sets the piece deep in my heart. It was all too obvious where Mozart left off and Sussmayr took over, the orchestration seemed clumsy, and I just could not stomach the sweeter sections of the piece. I heard it a few years ago, performed by the California Bach Society, and when a friend who then sang with them asked me what I thought, "because I know you'll be honest," I shook my head and said "Fine performance, but I just can't stand the piece."


A friend suggested some time ago that I check out Hogwood's recording, and offered to lend me his copy. I turned white and demurred; he became just a bit more insistent. Well, okay, why not, I thought, and took the CD, even though I was dubious.


Hogwood's performance makes the piece work for me, to the point that it recently lived in my car stereo for a couple of weeks. To the point that one day I hit repeat five times after the "Dies irae."

If I'm remembering the liner notes correctly - they're in California and I'm in New Jersey just now - the edition is one that attempts to strip out as much Sussmayr as possible. That certainly helps. But it's what Hogwood and his performers do with the piece that makes the recording so great.

To start with, there's the transparent clarity of both the orchestra and the chorus. I love the sound of English choruses with boys singing the soprano and alto parts - and those choruses are almost always superbly trained. On this recording, the Westminster Cathedral Boys Chorus and Academy of Ancient Music Chorus are nearly perfect. Every word is clear, every attack snaps, every cutoff is clean, every sibilant the same length.

Most important, though, are the choices Hogwood makes. His tempos are ideal; he respects Mozart's proportions and doesn't try to inflate the piece into a giant Romantic drama. He conducts crisply at all tempos, and the music never bogs down or loses the pulse. And so, the Requiem speaks for itself, classically.

I think there's only one serious problem with the recording: Emma Kirkby. One of the boys might as well have stepped out of the chorus for the soprano solos, for all the impact she makes with that mousy little voice. She's utterly out of scale with Carolyn Watkinson, the alto soloist, who sounds like an adult, and you can hear the other soloists holding back to make sure Kirkby is audible when the quartet is singing.

Oh, well - it's easy enough to ignore her. The real stars of the show are Hogwood, and his marvelous orchestra and chorus, and I'm glad to finally like, if not quite love, K. 626.

Updated because I managed to date this posting in the future.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tepid, Torpid

To the 92nd Street Y last night, my first visit there, with Steve Smith, for what looked like a promising concert of Ravel, Rorem, and Brahms, with the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, plus baritone Nathaniel Webster and violist Cynthia Phelps.

And "promise" was mostly what the program had going for it. The Ravel, a one-movement violin sonata written during his student years and not published until after his death, is salon music. It's pretty, and it was prettily played, and it would make very nice background music for a tea party of old friends. For any other use, it's about 15 minutes too long and much too repetitive.

Ned Rorem's song cycle Aftermath is a pacifist work, setting texts by a number of different poets, from Shakespeare to John Hollander. The composer was in the house and, seemingly ageless at 83, came bounding out for bows at the end. He looks like he'll be composing for another 20 years.

I'd like to hear the cycle again, with a more imaginative singer. Nathaniel Webster has an attractive basic tone, good control, dynamic variety. But the basic tone hardly varied, and while his diction is quite good, I still got no sense he was doing much with the words. He had the music on a stand in front of him, and perhaps that interfered with his spontaneity and ability to connect with the audience.

Still, in most of the songs, Rorem doesn't give the singer much help. Too many seem based on circular motifs, with phrases that circle stepwise or in arpeggios around a single tone. He sets the words with peculiar accents in some phrases, and the settings could do more to illuminate the poems and their structures. Putting that another way, I felt like the settings muddied the poems rather than clarifying or strengthening or adding to them. These lines, coming at the end of John Hollander's "The Park," should chill the listener, but Rorem's setting did nothing for me:

I shall never have grown into old
Winter with you now: has time robbed me
Of waiting with you here, or spared me?

A few of the songs are more effective than the others: I liked the first song, John Scott of Amwell's "The Drum," set with a spare piano accompaniment mimicking a drumbeat, and the last, Muriel Rukeyser's "Then," which was given a lovely melody indeed. Randall Jarrell's "Losses," the longest text, also got a fine setting. But other poems, such as "When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced" (Shakespeare sonnet LXIV), sounded incoherent.

The program concluded with a performance of Brahms's Piano Quartet in g minor, Op. 25. Brahms shouldn't be boring and shouldn't put the listener to sleep; last night's performance barely held my attention until the quartet finally woke up in the last movement. Somehow, the first three movements sounded as if they were all being played at one speed, without much being done to distinguish them from one another. The quartet took no risks, and what came out was spineless and dull.

The Former Chief Critic of the Times

Marcus Maroney writes about a wholly inadequate Bernard Holland review of this week's Orpheus Chamber Orchestra concert. I've been toting up my own list of Holland horrors for a few years now. I don't understand why he still has a job. Everyone reviewing for the Times is more competent than he is. And I consider it an utter mystery that there's more frothing in the blogosphere about Anthony Tommasini's reviews than about Holland's, which can be so astonishingly unprofessional and damaging.

By me, Holland's sins are:
  • Unnecessary cruelty, also known as misplaced nastiness.

    I'll never forget his review of the Westminster Choir's 1996 Christmas Concert. Note the condescending tone, the sneering suggestion that serious listeners need not attend, the slap at the chorus for attempting Schoenberg's difficult "Friede auf Erden."

    I don't review the Oakland Symphony with the expectation that it will perform with the precision of the San Francisco Symphony. That's not a hard lesson for most reviewers to learn - and any amateur chorus taking a shot at "Friede auf Erden" deserves praise. I would certainly never sneer at any audience attending a classical music concert, though I've commented at least once on how different an audience's reaction was from mine.
  • Disdain for the work under review.

    In 1998, the Met opened with Samson et Dalila, a work Holland simply can't abide. My solution? Don't review works you hate! If you must, say it once at most, then review the performance. Believe it or not, even the former chief critic of the Times hasn't got enough power to chase Samson out of the repertory at this late date.

    Better yet, relax and have a good time. I've only seen Samson once, thought it a hoot, but maybe I have more tolerance for well-constructed camp with great tunes than Bernard Holland does.
  • Relying too heavily on the program notes.

    In 2002, the San Francisco Symphony put on a semi-staged version of Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada. I attended a performance and enjoyed it very much, excepting the acid-toned soprano singing the villain of the piece. Holland came out to review it; when I saw his review a few days later, I was surprised at how closely his remarks on the work and its history tracked with the program notes. I would have at least read the New Grove articles on Rimsky and the opera! (Re-reading the review, I'm surprised he didn't comment on the "Egyptian" music, so Hollywood-campy as to make Samson sound positively noble by comparison. And he's wrong about an opera company taking the thing on. The music is wonderful, and it would certainly be nice to give the lead dancer room to spread out, but nothing happens. The opera is completely unstageworthy.)
  • Barely making the effort

    Okay, I admit that I read and admire Think Denk, pianist Jeremy Denk's blog. Don't hold it against me when I say that I was very sorry the Times sent Holland to review the Joshua Bell/Jeremy Denk recital a few weeks back. I get that they're young and peppy and accurate, but he says absolutely nothing else about the performance. Couldn't he have tried??

Updated, April 6. ACD replies, without actually discussing any specific points I make or any of Holland's reviews (and guess what? calling Holland the only Times critic worthy of the name is a defense of Holland). Marcus comments further on Holland. Steve Hicken takes note of the ongoing discussion; do read the very entertaining comments.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Subway

A few months ago, a friend and I had dinner at Farallon, a spectacularly-designed San Francisco seafood restaurant. We were seated in the Pool Room, which is barrel-vaulted and covered with charming and suitably marine mosaics. I took a look around and said "This room reminds me of a subway station." I meant that in a good way, and my friend knew exactly what I meant. He's been in plenty of subway stations himself.

Since I arrived on the East Coast last week, I've taken several subway lines up, down, and across Manhattan, and all the way to Brooklyn. My, what a difference a few decades makes. I remember the hot, grimy, noisy, filthy, scary NYC subway system of the 1970s all too well. Today...well, I wouldn't exactly want to live down there, but the stations and cars are clean, and much quieter than they used to be. There's no stink or garbage, and much of the acrid, characteristic subway system odor has disappeared. The grime is gone, and every available surface is now covered with shiny white tile or mosaic. Some of the mosaics are newly-commissioned artwork; other mosaics are restoration of tiling from the early days of the subway system. It's so much nicer than it used to be!

I wish I had photos to blog, but not yet, not yet. Next visit, though!

Opera in the Plaza

David Gockley is making good on one of the promises from his first press conference as General Manager of San Francisco Opera: The first Madama Butterfly of the summer season will be simulcast to a giant LED screen in Civic Center Plaza.

This will be on Saturday, May 27, 2006, at 8 p.m. I'll be out of town, at Wiscon 30, so let me know what it's like.

Monday, April 03, 2006

True Love Knows No Fear

And neither did Erika Sunnegårdh in her first appearance as Leonore (Fidelio) this past Saturday, under what can only be termed extraordinarily high-pressure circumstances:
  • It was her Met and U.S. debut

  • The performance was a broadcast

  • She was substituting for Karita Mattila, perhaps the greatest soprano now singing
Yes, I was there, up in Family Circle standing room, lured in by the circumstances. I'm exaggerating a bit, but only a bit. Ms. Sunnegårdh did show some nerves, but who can blame her? She was intermittently out of tune in the first act; a couple of first-act high notes didn't come into focus and sounded harsh; she inexplicably dropped one of the tougher passages in "Abscheulicher!" A friend listening on the radio thought she had gotten lost, and that seems probable. Personally, I'd be nervous too, and I'd miss a lot more than one difficult passage.

Beyond those issues - all of which I expect will be fixed in her scheduled performance later this week, given that the second act had no vocal problems - I have nothing but praise for her. She looked adorably boyish; she executed all of the stage business accurately and believably, fitting in well with a cast that had been working together; she blended into the ensembles and sounded good in them.

She has a big voice, indeed. Her high notes are very big, and easily produced. I had no sense she was at the limit of her potential volume. There's mass and weight without thickness, and more weight and size at the top than the bottom. She's due to sing some Turandots next year, and it's easy to hear why; the voice is built more like that of Nilsson or Turner than like Flagstad or my last Leonore, Christine Brewer. She'll have no problems as the Chinese princess.

I was happy as can be about the performance as a whole. True, I winced at Ben Heppner's entrance, when he slid up to his attack on "Gott!" at the beginning of Act II. (Is Florestan the Turandot of tenor roles, or what??) He warmed up and settled down and most of the act was very good indeed. He's a good actor and he and Sunnegårdh put on a fine show of marital love. I liked Gregory Turay and Jennifer Welch-Babidge; I loved the bit of stage business near the end that at least makes a run at resolving the Fidelio/Marzelline situation. I thought Kristinn Sigmundsson excellent and James Morris in much better vocal shape than the last couple of times I heard him, though his voice will never have the beauty of 20 or so years ago. Alan Held has become quite a singer and actor, but why did he bark and shout so much when he obviously would have been just as effective if he'd just sung?

Paul Nadler led a grand performance, well-proportioned and full of tension; the chorus sounded fabulous. I loved every minute, found it all gripping, and cried during Act II. I'm still troubled by the bizarre proportions of the piece (Act I is too long, Act II too short) and the implausibility of the Leonore/Pizarro confrontation. Did she have him in a hammerlock in this production, or what?? I couldn't quite tell from the rafters, as I left my binoculars in California.

Still, these are minor quibbles. The occasion itself was operatic, and the opera itself splendidly performed. What more could I ask?

Spelling corrections made some hours later, and read what Steve Smith and Anthony Tommasini have to say. (I agree with Tommasini that there was some tentativeness in her performance.) Also, read Daniel J. Wakin's original article about her and his post-performance follow-up.

I Gambled and Lost

LHL has cancelled her upcoming SF Symphony appearances owing to a severe gall bladder condition, according to today's press release. The Mahler Rückert-Lieder are being replaced by the 1947 version of Petrushka.