Wednesday, December 26, 2007

I'm in the Mood for Bile

Since January of 2007, I've been maintaining a list of books I read. I have less than a week left to add to the 2007 list; on January 1, I'll start a 2008 list at the same URL. Yes, I'll keep the 2007 list up as well.

I find that this past year I read a few nonfiction books, and many fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels. Entirely missing from the list is literary fiction, which surprises me. I read a fair amount of literary fiction before the demise of the Robertson Davies Memorial Book Group in 2004, after 11 years of regular meetings. Maybe I need a new book group, though scheduled reading doesn't always suit me. I could attend meetings of a book group that has been taking on Literary Tomes for a few years, but they meet on the peninsula and in San Jose, so not very convenient for me.

In any event, I've been sick since Monday, and just finished the third bit of light reading in the last, um, week or ten days. As you can see from my list, I had complaints about all three novels. So I'm ready for something a little more substantial. We'll see how far I get into the most recent translation of The Charterhouse of Parma.

Too Annoying!

I'm just catching up with the Dec. 2 NY Times Magazine, which contained Sally Satel's story about looking for a kidney, the cover article about former Washington governor Booth Gardner's search for assisted suicide, and, of most interest to readers of this blog, Charles McGrath's search for Anna Netrebko. How many annoyances in these articles? Let me count the ways.
  • Satel, a psychiatrist, doesn't understand why the people around her might not want to donate a kidney to her! That she doesn't understand the emotional reasons is appalling, since she is a psychiatrist. That she says there isn't much medical risk of donating is worse.The surgery, per se, isn't all that hazardous. But kidney failure in old age isn't uncommon; neither is diabetes, which puts an enormous strain on the kidneys. The future risks of donation are thus harder to quantify. Lastly, and I realize this is very cold, but a large number of Satel's fellow libertarian-conservatives espouse the virtues of selfishness. Perhaps the people around her are just following Randian principles.
  • Letters responding to Sally Satel's article are here.
  • The Booth Gardner story troubled me in various ways, though I was very pleased by the inclusion of feminist viewpoints and those of disabled activists. I was disturbed by the situation of bioethicist Sally Wolf's father, who was dying in agony. I think she was probably wrong to say there was no way to hasten his death, but what really got me was that he was apparently not being adequately medicated for pain. (Rant deleted about inadequate pain management in the so-called health care system.) I was also troubled by the many contradictions in what Gardner says he wants and how he is living his life: not like someone who wants to die.
  • On to Trebs. When McGrath talks about how media-savvy and famous Netrebko is, I have to ask if he's ever heard of Geraldine Farrar, the Met's greatest draw a century ago, who on her retirement was carried down Broadway on the shoulders of her fans. She was enormously skilled at manipulating the media, and had a great publicity machine. Check, for example, the ease with which you can buy Farrar postcards on eBay. It's like buying Caruso 78s: very, very easy. Or check out that memoir of Farrar's, written from the viewpoint of her dead mother!
  • And the line about Netrebko being "one of a new breed" of opera singers who can act does a huge disservice to generations of riveting singers. Muzio, Rysanek, so many more. I think what he probably means is, opera singers who act the way film stars act. Yes, the style IS different when you're being photographed from inches or feet away versus being viewed at 90 feet from a balcony. Opera is primarily a live theatrical medium.
  • I'm not sure I'll be able to drag myself to the end of the McGrath story, yeah. Too annoyed!
Updated, Jan. 1, 2008: I've added the links. And I never did finish McGrath.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Telling It Like It Is

Anthony Tommasini takes a vigorous whack at timid concert programming:
So at the end of 2007 I salute audiences in New York and elsewhere who turned out not just for safe bets but also for challenging fare. For too long presenters of concerts and directors of orchestras, ensembles and opera companies have blamed supposedly tradition-bound audiences for their own timidity. But this year, from my experience, some of the most adventurous programs attracted the most ardent and diverse audiences.
Go, Tony, go!

To This We've Come

Bernard Holland reviews the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Allan, Allan, Allan

Allan Kozin spends an unusual amount of ink moaning about balances and the difficulty of playing the French horn in a review of a concert by Chamber Music at the Y.

What the performers needed was period instruments. The modern horn has a bigger sound than the 19th century horn. Check out, if you can find the set, John Eliot Gardiner's Schumann symphonies and the Konzertstuck for four horns, performed by the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Look up the demonstration podcasts at the Web site of the New Queen's Hall Orchestra, which plays using the instruments that would have been used by a British orchestra around a century ago.

Sometimes period instruments are the right choice!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Classical All-Stars?

If you're KDFC, the Bay Area's sole commercial classical music radio station, you think classical music is a sport. It's either exciting or relaxing, never intellectual stimulating or complex, and there's almost never any vocal music. Thus, you can vote for the 2007 Classical All-Stars. Sadly, the page only allows one write-in greatest work, and for the other two you have to choose from a short list of standards. If I can bring myself to choose, I'll be writing in Elliott Carter, Marin Alsop, and the Quartet for the End of Time. How I wish I could write in a couple more great works.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

N. Y. Philharmonic to North Korea

The NY Philharmonic announced a couple of days ago that they'll be traveling to North Korea in early 2008, where they'll give a concert in Pyongyang. The next stop on the tour is Seoul, South Korea, and they're performing there as well.

Discussion has been brewing in the blogosphere about this for a few weeks, with Greg Sandow and Terry Teachout both taking the position that the NYPO shouldn't be visiting a totalitarian country and Drew McManus and a few others taking the position that music can open doors as part of a universal artistic message, etc.

I've been chewing over the issue without having been able to figure out where I stood until this morning, when I read Terry's report on the NYPO press conference where they discussed the visit. The key words, for me, were "with the support of the State Department."

This visit is major, it's important, and it looks to me as though it's part of a new diplomatic initiative aimed at opening discussions with North Korea and starting the process of bringing the country back into the world. North Korea is among the poorest and most isolated countries in the world; the country has been ruled for decades by one family and its insane cult of personality.

The Bush administration supported keeping North Korea in isolation and labeled the country part of the axis of evil. Yes, there is plenty of evil there, and, like the Soviet Union, North Korea is starting to collapse from its own isolation and poverty. The State Department's support of the NYPO tour means that in this area the Bush administration is, finally, willing to follow the words of Winston Churchill: "It is better to jaw, jaw, jaw, than to war, war, war." At least for now, I'm in favor of this visit.

Seattle Symphony in the Times

The New York Times has a big article, co-reported by Daniel Wakin and James Oestreich, on the turmoil within the Seattle Symphony. Drew McManus and others have written in the past about problems between the orchestra players and music director Gerard Schwarz.

Here are some choice quotations from the Times article:
But like many long-serving maestros Mr. Schwarz has also made enemies and generated reservoirs of ill will among the players. Now a lawsuit brought by an orchestra member, scheduled for trial next month, suggests a more complete picture of dysfunction at the Seattle Symphony. It paints a damaging portrait of Mr. Schwarz, 60, who was long prominent on the New York music scene: as trumpeter at the New York Philharmonic, founding music director of the New York Chamber Symphony and music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival.

At least 15 current or former members of the Seattle Symphony have signed sworn declarations on behalf of that member, Peter Kaman, many of them creating an image of Mr. Schwarz as a vindictive, harsh taskmaster who has undermined morale. Even given the strong feelings players in many orchestras have historically had about their conductors, the degree of public criticism is stunning.
I'm just going to say that Schwarz's long tenure at Mostly Mozart wasn't good for the festival, the repertory of which got boring and repetitive. The last few years have seen a great revival, thanks to the brilliant programming of Louis Langree. (Last year, for example, I saw Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide and a lot of music by Magnus Lindberg.) Note, also, the revival of the Boston Symphony under James Levine, replacing Seiji Ozawa, who overstayed his welcome by many years.

Then there's this:
The orchestra’s troubles, widely known in the industry, made it tough to find a successor to Mr. Meecham. The board hired an executive recruiter, Pamela Rolfe. In February she quit, blaming the orchestra for not revealing the extent of its financial problems, according to her resignation letter.

Mr. Schwarz, meanwhile, was pushing an old friend: Thomas Philion, the president of the Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro, N.C., where Mr. Schwarz was the principal conductor. Mr. Philion was hired by the Seattle Symphony in March; Mr. Schwarz was named music director of the festival in September.
That's a nice little quid-pro-quo.

My favorite, though, is this, regarding a player survey that conducted by the orchestra members and buried by the Board of Directors:
A recently obtained copy of the survey showed that the players voted 61 to 8 in favor of new artistic leadership and 61 to 12 to form a search committee for a new music director. Players anonymously poured out a litany of complaints — some stated with eloquence, others with angry language — about Mr. Schwarz and the board’s attitude toward their opinions.
You can't write off those votes as a few disgruntled players.

Honestly, the board is foolish to back Schwarz at this point. The Seattle Symphony may be "churning out recordings," but they're on Naxos. I buy them only for repertory, because, really, Schwarz is competent without being interesting. Long tenures, more than, say, twelve or fifteen years, aren't good for orchestras these days. Considering the level of talent out there, the Seattle Symphony could do much, much better.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Many Happy Returns!

Elliott Carter turns 99 today. His horn concerto premiered at the Boston Symphony a few weeks ago, and he's known to be working on a number of pieces. Wishing him many more years of happy composing and good health!

Friday, December 07, 2007

Andrew Imbrie, 1921-2007

The composer Andrew Imbrie died on Wednesday; Robert Commanday remembers him here. Joshua Kosman's Imbrie obituary is here.

Road to Perdition?

In memory of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died earlier this week, I am in the process of downloading Gruppen (Claudio Abbado/Berlin PO) from the amazing new DG download site. The set also includes some very tasty-looking Kurtag. I have also picked up Des Canyon aux etoiles (Chung), while I'm at it. Could an MP3 player be in my future somewhere? Oh, probably not.

I am not sure how clear this is from my earlier postings, but I am playing catch-up where postwar music is concerned, and boy, am I having fun.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Scottish Opera

I caught the next-to-last Macbeth at San Francisco Opera Friday night, and unfortunately I'm posting this too late for you to catch the last performance, which was on Sunday.

I'd heard plenty about the production, and my conclusion was that it was not as bad as I'd been led to believe. True, the witches' outfits and on-stage demeanor were extremely silly and not at all frightening; true, the green typewriter in the scenes with Fleance made no sense whatsoever; true, it made no sense to have three of the assassins in drag; true, it must have been a royal pain to move that cube around the stage every fifteen minutes.

Still, I found the cube an effective stage element, whether it was the unhappy couple's bedroom, a tent, Duncan's death chamber, or a reminder of what had been, when MacDuff's family made an appearance there.

I did not like one bit the very first significant use of the cube, however, when poor Georgina Lukacs had to sing the letter scene from its roof, standing there in 3-inch boot-heeled pumps and a long dress, tethered to the thing for her own safety. I found myself calculating how much damage would be done to the cube, and to her, if she went over the edge. She wouldn't have hit the floor of the stage 12 feet below, but she certainly would have bounced off or gone through the glass? plastic? face of the cube. If she'd gone through it, well...

I'm willing to bet that the designer just didn't realize that the prompter would be clearly visible reflected in that particular face of the cube during the Banquo/Fleance scene not long before Banquo is killed.

I found most of the stage direction good, especially when the director was managing the interactions among the characters. All of the singers could act, and most of them could sing quite well.

Certainly the smaller roles were well filled, with Noah Stewart as Malcolm, the very fine Raymond Aceto as Banquo, Jeremy Galyon and Elza van den Heever as, respectively, the doctor and Lady Macbeth's lady in waiting. I was amused to see that among the supernumeraries were two children with the last name Runnicles and two with the last name Okerlund. Alfredo Portilla sang Macduff, and while he had the right kind of voice and certainly tried for the right things in "Ah, la paterna mano," he didn't quite get there. His phrasing was a bit off, the climaxes missed by a hair; the aria never came together.

But of course this opera ultimately stands and falls on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the casting gave us a dramatically convincing pair who were Beauty and the Beast as far as the singing went.

Yes, Thomas Hampson 'twas the beauty and Lukacs the beast. Hampson could do no wrong, from the stunning intensity of his moral descent to the sheer beauty and variety of his singing. He does not have the traditional Verdi baritone with the big trumpety top, and who cares, with singing this great. Lukacs had a fine dramatic manner and a suitably over-the-top way with the character, especially when working directly with Hampson. They made a good pair of evildoers.

Alas, she also had much too much of the ugly voice Verdi wrote that he wanted for the role. I can take ugly, but not with wobble, glottal attacks, missed pitches galore, and very little of the agility required for the Brindisi. Someone should have rewritten the end of the sleepwalking scene for her; she lunged forte for the Db, missed by about a fourth, and gave up completely.

The Magic Flute at San Francisco Opera

Patrick Vaz posted last month about San Francisco's new Magic Flute, which I saw in October and neglected to post about. Really, it was a lovely production, very charming. Like everyone else, I adored the portmanteau creatures in the scene where Tamino plays his flute. The singing was fine, and I especially liked Christopher Maltman's Papageno, my favorite character of the lot. He's a human, where everyone else is something of an archetype. The Three Ladies were hilarious, and hat's off to the Three Spirits. Erika Miklosa has one of those small, ethereal voices and didn't make that much impact as the Star-Flaming Queen; she also smudged the triplets in her second aria, which I realize is the norm. I don't necessarily agree with a friend who thinks the role should be sung by a dramatic soprano, but...

Patrick's right that it's a good introductory opera, and in fact I had as my guest a friend who had never seen live opera. She had a good time, thought the music beautiful and love the production; definitely a successful outing.


Greg Sandow reports back from what sounds like a great conference at DePauw University, and says this:
For three days, everyone seemed to agree that classical music, as we know it today, has run its course. That's heady stuff for any music school. I'm sure some people disagreed, but the presentations -- including a lively one by composer Erich Stem, who runs a new-music record label at Indiana University -- all kept saying this.
That's a bit different from "the sky is falling!classical music is dying," eh?

Still, I think he is probably overstating the case. I await the kinds of changes that would signal that "classical music, as we know it today, has run its course." I'd really like to see Greg define that, of course!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Abramo Lincoln Pulls Into Port

Puccini's evergreen Madama Butterfly opened Saturday at War Memorial Opera House, for a very, very short run: five performances, split among two casts. I caught the opening, with Donald Runnicles conducting and the first cast, which includes Patricia Racette and tenor Brandon Jovanovich. Run, do not walk; stand if you must; but catch the miracle that the three of them, and the wonderful Zheng Cao and Stephen Powell, are creating.

For a more complete review, see Joshua Kosman in the Chronicle.

No Wonder There Was a Riot

Excerpts on YouTube of Nijinsky's choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps, as reconstructed for the Joffrey Ballet. The dancing looks like nothing I've seen before.

Read about the reconstruction in a Times article.

A tip 'o the hat to Elaine Fine for the pointer.

Friday, November 30, 2007

One Thing He Got Wrong

The magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall has a surprising and distressing omission: none of the doors at box office level are electric. That is, I could not find a door where you push a flat plate with an accessibility symbol on it to open the door. Maybe there's an accessible door there someplace and I just missed it, but I saw a WDCH employee struggling to help a woman who uses a wheelchair get into the lobby. Maybe the accessible entrance is elsewhere; that would be wrong because the building ought not make disabled people feel like second-class citizens having to go around the corner.

It's just not acceptable in a public building constructed well after the passsage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I hope the omission will be corrected at some point.


I noticed what Alex Ross quite rightly calls the "vastly improved" Los Angeles Philharmonic Web site last week, early enough to catch some Greeked text publicly visible. Apparently his posting has generated a flood of visitors, because the site is spectacularly down right now. "The following information is meant for the website developer for debugging purposes" is not what they want the paying customers to see....

[Eleven minutes after my posting, the site is back up.]

Accuracy Counts

The New York Times has an article today about errors of fact in speeches and other statements by Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of NYC, who is one of the leaders in the campaign for the Republican presidential candidacy. The article is on the front page, where it belongs.

I hope it gets reprinted far and wide, along with other articles about candidate inaccuracies. The press has been far too much of a lapdog since 2000, letting President Bush and members of his administration get away with murder. I'm always glad to see public figures' public statements called out for their errors and distortions.

The Times article cites for its corrections of candidates' statements. Keep an eye on that URL as the elections approach.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Joyful Noises

I heard a wide range of music at Disney Hall last month, from string quartets up to the fabulously orchestrated Wing on Wing - when was the last time you saw a wind machine on stage or heard the voice of the plainfin midshipman? - but the one kind of work I didn't hear, and regret not hearing, was one of the great sonic-overload works in the repertory. Wing on Wing and Radical Light were loud, but not that loud.

That's because I agree with Patrick about the sheer elemental pleasure of a symphony orchestra at full cry: I remember a few of those astonishingly loud pieces with glee. The insane Elektra taken straight through at, apparently, triple forte (well, it felt that way in the balcony at War Memorial). The first time I heard The Rite of Spring live, a fantastic performance at the 1999 SFS Stravinsky Festival. The Turangalila conducted by David Robertson the year SFO did St. Francois. What a racket! Buying the second-row ticket was a big mistake. I'd like to hear it again, next time from the tenth row.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

La Rondine, San Francisco Opera

I saw the much-anticipated production of Puccini's La Rondine today, and what an odd duck it is. Written for Vienna, but premiered at Monte Carlo, it's theoretically an operetta, but I think I caught no more than five minutes of spoken dialog in the two and a half hours of running time. There's only one big number, the much-recorded "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta," and it's performed minutes into the first act.

The production's lovely, with art-deco decorative elements and 1920s flapper dresses. (Are the costumes anachronistic for an opera that premiered in 1917? I'm just not sure.) I think the Act I set is a problem, however; I had difficulty hearing most of the singers most of the time, and I suspect it's because most of them were out near the edge of the stage with the couches and piano, far from any reflecting surface other than the stage itself. More than one friend reported the same problem.

The work itself is lovely and slight, a nostalgic variant of La Traviata in which no one dies. It's Puccini, and the music has all the hallmarks of a Puccini score, from the pentatonic scales to the beautiful orchestration.

I'm not quite sure what all the fuss is over Angela Gheorghiu, making her first, overdue appearance here. Sure, it's a beautiful voice, with as much spin and float on top as any soprano I've heard. But she never grabbed me, and she was often hard to hear at less than forte. Anna Christy was a charming Lisette; Gerard Powers an elegant Prunier. Misha Didyk varied from bleating to eloquent as Ruggero; Powers has more the style of the great Tito Schipa, the first Ruggero. Philip Skinner made an imposing and dignified Rambaldo.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another Note About Feeds

I poked around Blogger's feed settings yesterday and found that how much of a posting gets fed is configurable. That is, Blogger will feed all or part of a posting.

This explains a phenomenon I've observed in Google Reader: some blogs' feeds give me complete postings, some don't.

I don't think there is any cost to you, the blogger, if you provide a full feed. You might want to check your blog's settings to see what kind of feed you're providing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

If You're Using a Blog Reader (RSS Aggregator)...

I can't swear that this is true of all readers, but while Google Reader picks up content in an RSS feed, it does not pick up comments. If you're using a feed reader, you are probably missing all the action on my previous posting, where we're having a very lively discussion.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Who Composes, 2

Not nearly enough people, in my book.

Look at it this way: there are drawing classes available to children and adults of every skill level, from beginning to student to professional. Everybody knows that drawing is a skill that most people can become at least somewhat good at; that drawing can be a source of continuing pleasure throughout life; that you can start at one level and progress as you learn more about your tools and your eye.

I'd like to see classical composition taught the same way as drawing: as a craft, or as a learnable skill. Instead, composing is surrounding by a golden aura of genius and prodigiousness, the legacy of a 19th century world view and, perhaps, those youthful composers Mozart and Mendelssohn. Either you're a brilliantly talented genius or you're nothing - how easy it is to forget that Leopold Mozart raised his son with music lessons from an early age, thus nurturing the inborn potential the child had. There are middle ways! As you work with music, you learn how to structure a piece, how to balance an ensemble, how to write a melody, how to compose for different instruments. All you have to do to realize the truth of this is to look at how far Verdi and Wagner came from their first to their last works.

Certainly pop and rock have figured this out; look at the thousands of kids playing guitar or bass, many of whom taught themselves to play, many of whom go on to start bands in their garages or basements. If we can change our attitudes about the nature of composition and start teaching it as a skill that can be learned and hones over time, we will have more composers; we will have more listeners who listen with skill; we will have more people playing instruments alone or together.

Speaking more personally, I never thought of myself as someone who might learn how to compose until about a year or so ago, when it dawned on me that I'd heard enough music and looked at enough scores that I could put together, on the one hand, a pastiche of a Donizetti aria, and, on the other hand, an original vocal trio, with orchestra, in a loosely Expressionist style. I haven't done either and probably won't (time, etc.), but it was quite a shock to me to realize I could.

(Elaine Fine and I have had an interesting email discussion of this topic, and I hope she'll post some of her thoughts as well.)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Who Composes, 1

Last month, in comments to my posting Ensembles, Programming, and Pandering, a reader made this comment:
Great post, Lisa. I think we will have reached true equality when all music is judged by its own merit, removed from the niches of "women composer," "gay composer," or even "church composer." I'm sympathetic to the reason why those categories exist, but I think there is a danger in giving too much credibility to the us vs. them mentality, even in the name of advocacy.
That's a noble sentiment, but, I think, ahistorical. The mindset in operation isn't necessarily us versus them at all; I think it's more a mindset of honest self-identification.

I believe it's way too soon to discard categories such as "woman composer" and "gay composer." It's only recently that those categories have even existed. David del Tredici talks here about the number of great American composer who've been gay. He doesn't mention Corigliano and Rorem, but evidently he's got a long list. (Alex Ross had a few comments about related subjects.) You'd have to be crazy to try to discuss Britten, his life, and his work without taking his sexuality into consideration; it colored so much of his life, and brought him a very great muse.

As far as women go, how many women composers can you think of before, say, the 1960s? Crawford, L. Boulanger, Chaminade, Beach, Smyth, Fanny Mendelssohn, C. Schumann, Hildegard, Cozzolani, and....? Martinu had a talented student who died tragically young whose name is escaping me right now, but I've heard her music and it's good.

No one ever thinks twice about discussing Debussy in terms of his being a French composer, or Wagner as a German. If you don't discuss some composers in terms of their being women, you hide the fact that they are few, and that makes it harder to ask useful and interesting questions about why there have been so few women writing music in the western classical tradition.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Marston Mystery Release

I checked the Marston future releases page for updates, and found that there have been no changes. They're still behind: the Edison release scheduled for September and the Grieg/Saint-Saëns/Pugno expected in October aren't out yet. The Delna/De'Lisle set is not going to arrive in November, obviously.

My guess is that the mystery release will be in the mail around March.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


In a discussion at Listen 101 a few weeks back, a commenter posted about not liking the "ultra-militant portion of the feminist camp."

So, I'm a militant feminist, and surely some would consider me ultra-militant. Feminism is about getting equal rights for women, socially, legally, culturally. It's a political philosophy. It's about relations between the sexes. It's about plenty of other things.

I'll be putting a blogroll of feminist blogs up in the sidebar, just so there's no misunderstanding about where I stand.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tommasini's Alsop Profile

Anthony Tommasini had a profile in the Times the other day of Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony and Bournemouth Symphony. I am a known fan of hers, so I glanced at the article over the weekend, then read it more carefully today after a friend asked me some questions about it. My conclusion, the second time around, is that it's unmitigated crap. I suggest that you click the link to the profile so you can follow along as I justify that conclusion.

Here's the first paragraph:
The conductor Marin Alsop has strong artistic convictions that she puts into practice and expounds on readily. But there is one aspect of her career that she has been ambivalent about discussing: Ms. Alsop is a notable woman in a field that for whatever reasons continues to be dominated by men.
Somewhat later, Tommasini says this:
The dearth of leading female conductors is ultimately inexplicable.
Well, you know, it's not inexplicable at all. You need only look at what women have experienced whenever they enter previously all-male fields to find the explanations: the doubts raised about women's abilities; the patronizing attitudes of men already in the field; the automatic disqualification of women who try to get jobs or schooling in those fields. This is well documented, as both Tommasini and Alsop must be aware, and in many fields. I will cite the early career of Sandra Day O'Connor, who graduated near the top of her law school class at Stanford, and after passing the bar, found herself offered a couple of jobs as a legal secretary. I will also cite Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which neatly outlines the ways that the quality of women's writing has been denied. It is beyond naive to imply, and worse to believe, that classical music is in any way free of these patterns of sexism.

Later on, Tommasini speculates about whether Alsop's lesbianism somehow makes her more acceptable as an authority figure:
Is it possible that in Ms. Alsop’s case her sexual orientation has made her less intimidating as an authority figure?

There can be a seductive element to conducting. Think of the kinetic young Leonard Bernstein, the suave Herbert von Karajan, the exotic and scruffy Valery Gergiev. Ms. Alsop is a dynamo on the podium, an incisive technician who moves and grooves much like Bernstein, her mentor. Might male orchestral players (and even some female ones) be more comfortable with an electrifying woman on the podium if she is known to be a lesbian?
The nonsense about "ultimately inexplicable" directly follows this nonsense.

And nonsense it is, except for the part about Alsop being electrifying, a dynamo, and an incisive technician. Note that there's no justification or logic offered for why orchestra players might be more comfortable with a lesbian on the podium. That's because it's pure speculation. Not only that, it's patronizing speculation: how is "maybe they're more comfortable with her dynamism because she's a lesbian" different from "women are better suited to be nurses than doctors, because they are natural caretakers"? Is being a leader somehow less acceptable from straight women than from lesbians? Does Tommasini think all orchestral players respond the same way to lesbians and to straight women? This is just stereotypical crap.

I think Tommasini raises the lesbian red herring to give himself a pass from discussing the reasons why there aren't more women conducting at the opera and symphony. He doesn't want to discuss the lack of opportunity, lack of role models, active discouragement, and outright sexism in the field, starting with the wealthy donors sitting on boards of directors. Those are the people who appoint search committees and make short lists of candidates when there are music director openings. As in other fields, your contacts - who you know and who they know - are hugely important to the process of becoming known. And people tend to like and know people who are like themselves. The boards of directors of major musical institutions are, I'm willing to bet, mostly older white guys. For example, take a look at the New York Philharmonic's Board of Directors. I counted a very small minority of women's names. It's true that the men could all be under 35 and feminist, but I bet not.

Now, Tommasini could answer his question by doing an investigative story about why there are so few women conducting in the big leagues, but I don't recall seeing such an article in the Times. Instead, for this profile he puts Marin Alsop on the spot. I am certain she has experienced more than enough sexism and homophobia during her career. She talks about sexism on her personal Web site, but she's circumspect about it, so you have to read between the lines a bit.

I understand why she does this: women in the public eye who talk about sexism cannot win. If you don't talk about systemic sexism, it doesn't get addressed in a systematic way. If you do talk about it, you will be accused of being a complainer, a whiner, someone making excuses for why she hasn't gotten ahead. It is a huge risk to speak up. Your job application may have been at the bottom of the pile because you have an obviously female name; one of the judges on a panel may have leered at you; a whole board of directors may not have taken your candidacy seriously because you're a woman, but if you say this in public, unless you have witnesses, or written evidence, you will be the one getting grilled, not the people who treated you that way.

There is much else in the article that I take issue with:
Most conservatories and college music departments report that roughly half of composition students these days are women. And given the impact of A-list composers like Kaija Saariaho, Judith Weir, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas and Chen Yi, the very idea of discussing “women composers” seems patronizing.
Not if you're interested in why it's only in the last 10 or 20 years years that women have made up 50% of composition students, or why there are only about ten or twelve women on the compositional A-list of living composers, or why Ruth Crawford gave up her career as a composer when she married Charles Seeger. Or, speaking personally, why I was in my second year of musicology graduate school before I first heard of Hildegard of Bingen.

Drew McManus has already demolished the straw man discussion of how auditions and hiring are done at orchestras. He didn't talk about this particular point:
Some kind of affirmative action in hiring and promoting may be called for, Ms. Alsop suggested, starting with orchestra musicians. This is a controversial subject in a field that advertises itself as making appointments according to artistic excellence alone. Still, Ms. Alsop says she believes in the benefit of diversity in the performing arts.

"In most cases, when you look at symphony members, they don't look like the communities we live in," she said. "We must reach out to various groups, to gain diversity, so that communities feel engaged and reflected."
Most readers of this blog know the makeup of typical big city orchestras and will realize that this is code for "I'd like to see more African-Americans and Latinos in orchestras." I don't disagree with that sentiment at all. I just wish it were discussed openly rather than in code. Ironically, Tommasini later writes:
Americans like to think that racial and gender discrimination does not exist here, [Alsop] said. “Consequently everyone develops a fear of talking about it.”
WTF? Discrimination is talked about all over. One need only pick up the Times itself to find plenty of reporting about racism and sexism, or to find discussions of court cases related to the laws against discrimination. Or visit a good bookstore, where there are lots of books about the history of feminism and the civil rights movement. Or start the conversation yourself, about the many economic, class, and cultural reasons we don't have more black and Latino people in classical music.

Lastly, I'm astonished by a particular omission from the article: there is no mention at all of Alsop's fifteen years of leading the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. It's an important festival where she has done a fantastic job. Maybe this got left on the cutting room floor, as it were, but it seems a bizarre omission.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

At Least WDCH is in a Dry Climate

Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry: separated at birth?

M.I.T. Sues Architect Frank Gehry

BOSTON (AP) -- The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is suing renowned architect Frank Gehry, alleging serious design flaws in the Stata Center, a building celebrated for its unconventional walls and radical angles.

The school asserts that the center, completed in spring 2004, has persistent leaks, drainage problems and mold growing on its brick exterior. It says accumulations of snow and ice have fallen dangerously from window boxes and other areas of its roofs, blocking emergency exits and causing damage.


Sibelius in Los Angeles

My coverage of Sibelius Unbound, San Francisco Classical Voice, November 6, 2007.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Alia Vox at Archiv Music

A raft of Alia Vox CDs are on sale at Archiv Music. They're priced at $8.99 per CD; the usual is more like $18.99.

Alia Vox, if you are not already aware of this, is the label of Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI, and all things Savall Cabal. Go forth and buy.


Read Alex Ross's profile of Esa-Pekka Salonen from 1994.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Choral Singing Fans!

Try to catch this afternoon's repeat of the Volti program I heard last night. It's at St. Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, at 4 p.m.

They're singing some world premieres and some Volti commissions (there isn't 100% overlap in those categories). As usual, this chorus of great singers sounds great; I especially loved Stacy Garrop's Sonnets of Beauty and Music, Morten Lauridsen's Madrigali, and the second of Alan Fletcher's Two Yeats Choruses. I'd like to hear it all again, of course.

We also had a minor blogging summit afterward, with me, M. C-, and Patrick Vaz all chattering away. Celeste where were you??

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I made my first three postings to this blog three years ago tonight.

Quite a lot has changed since then, all for the better:2006 was a little difficult, but it's been a good three years. Thank you, all, for reading and commenting here.

And of course - happy birthday to vilaine fille!

Five by Five

From Steve Hicken -

1) What five six seven oh, forget it operas would you most like to see performed?

Weinberger, Schwanda the Bagpiper
Saariaho, L'Amour de Loin
Verdi, Re Lear
Dukas, Ariane et Barbe-Bleu
Ades, The Tempest
Pfitzner, Palestrina
Respighi, La fiamma
Reyer, Sigurd
Puccini, La Fanciulla del West
Berlioz, Les Troyens
Schreker, Der ferne Klang
Szymanowski, King Roger
Sessions, Montezuma
Ponchielli, La Gioconda
Mascagni, Isabeau
Hermann, Wuthering Heights
Marschner, Der Vampyr (in honor of the day)

2) What five pieces would you most like to hear performed?

Saint-Saens, Organ Symphony
Messiaen, Des canyons aux etoiles
Schoenberg, Gurrelieder
Sibelius, Eighth Symphony
Carter, String quartet (any)
Dufay, mass (any)

3) What five living performers would you most like to meet?

Claire Chase
Kari Kriiku
Stephen Kovacevich
Dawn Upshaw

4) What five living composers would you most like to meet?


"Meet" isn't the right word, but I'd like to see Harold Shapero again. Perhaps there's a plane ticket to Boston in my future.

5) What five living musicians (composers, performers, writers, scholars, etc) would you most like to play three-on-three basketball with/against?

All the combinations I'm coming up with are too darned mean. However, I agree with Elaine Fine that it would be good to have Taruskin on one's side.

Update: All right, all right, I can't resist: my favorite face-off doesn't include me. I like Boulez, Babbit, and Carter vs. Saariaho, Salonen, and Lindberg, at least if it's something less strenuous than basketball. I'd like Carter to make it to 100....

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Oh, Come On

Greg Sandow reports on a couple of composers ("one quite well known") who are, apparently, traumatized by the works of Luciano Berio and what he represents to them: the tyranny of serialism and the highly intellectual compositional styles popular (and supposedly required) in academic compositional circles in the 1950s through 1970s.

So, here's the deal. I lived through those times and remember a lot of diddly-beepity music at graduate student concerts at Brandeis in the late 1970s. I have a story or two, yes, I do, especially the one involving a composer friend who failed his written exams under unexplained circumstances. (He got his doctorate at an institution other than the one that flunked him.)

However, it's not the 1970s any more. Anyone still feeling traumatized in 2007 from their graduate student days of twenty or thirty years back needs to bear in mind that it's the 21st century, you're not in grad school any more, and you can write whatever music you want.

P. S. As far as castigating Carter for not incorporating popular tunes into his Joyce-inspired work goes: c'mon. The same thing I said above about writing whatever music you want goes for Carter too. Stop with the prescriptions.

Monday, October 29, 2007

On Originality

A thoughtful post from Matthew Guerrier about the nature of genius, Romantic thinking, and current notions of innovation reminded me of a particular email exchange with a friend a few years back:
Friend: Enthusiastic as I was about "My Father..." and many other Adams pieces, I don't like [Naive and Sentimental Music] at all. To me, it sounds like "Adams Does Adams," without anything new... no, just say. Sorry.

Me: And how did you feel about Haydn around Symphony No. 85?
Clearly some critical antipathy toward Philip Glass originates in the demand for constant newness and originality.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Grand Surprise

A friend sends me a tidbit from the journals of Leo Lerman. It's not the sort of thing I usually blog, but irresistible, for reasons you will understand (Jonathan, look away!):

January 6, 1969. At dinner, Larry Kelly told a saga: Onassis rang Maria [Callas], asking for a date. Maria said no Onassis said that after all they were in business together--the tankers [Onassis gave Callas a tanker for her birthday before they broke up]. She said all right, come to dinner. After dinner, Onassis said that he had to pee. He disappeared into Maria's bedroom. Soon Bruna, Maria's maid, went into the bedroom--rushed out screaming that Onassis was in there starkers. Maria told him to dress immediately. Onassis refused. Maria's butler, Ferruccio, was too airy-fairy to do anything but scream and swoon. Maria sent for the police, who made Onassis dress and leave. Maria flung down the window and screeched, into the three or four a.m. Paris night, "Shame on you! And on the anniversary of your second wife's first husband's death!" This was on November 22, 1968.

Onassis likes to fuck women up their asses. Mrs. Kennedy won't do it. Also, she will not sit in El Morocco with him and his three or four cigar-smoking Greek chums with their lavish, blondined females, while the Greek men talk business. Mrs. K. likes "intellectuals" - Galbraith, Schlesinger - but this is not why he married her. He wants to display her; she won't be displayed. Hence the rented house in Peapack, New Jersey. Onassis is bored with Mrs. K. They never planned a single day past their wedding day on Skorpios. [Whereas] Maria studied her role as Onassis's love. She would go to Crazy Horse [a Parisian nightclub] and watch, preparing this new role as meticulously as she always had prepared her opera roles. She said to Larry and Mary Reed when they were all in Cuernevaca that being fucked up the ass hurt and was boring."
Grand surprise, indeed.

Friday, October 26, 2007

How Long was That??

Nimble Tread reports from London on a performance of the Goldberg Variations by Simone Dinnerstein that took 97 (ninety-seven) minutes. Ninety-seven minutes?? That sounds like she played every variation with two repeats.

I heard Jeffrey Kehane play the Goldbergs, with all repeats, at Music@Menlo a couple of years back. He took no more than the length of a CD, and maybe a little less; yes, it was a wonderful performance. (We all took a lunch break and, for an encore, he played the Diabelli Variations. "Well, I never have to do THAT again," he remarked in the closing Q&A session.)

Ninety-seven minutes?? Um....

Noise at Google

Alex Ross at Google

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Walt Disney Concert Hall

The most photogenic building in the world, or what? I've posted all of the photos I took of the House That Frank Built, but I plan to delete some. How I would love to photograph the interior too.

Ensembles, Programming, and Pandering

Over at listen 101, a reader of Steve Hicken's raises interesting questions about the makeup of an ensemble and the works they program; ACD chimes in as you might expect.

I think this is a complex issue.

I would not take a small, and venerable, chamber music ensemble like the Juilliard Quartet to task for being all white men. Look at the makeup of American string quartets formed within the last 30 years - which are all white men, again? The Emersons, and who else? As recently as the 1970s, most major orchestras had just a few women in them. I think at that time Doriot Dwyer of the Boston Symphony may have been the only woman playing principal anything in the majors. Today, look at the roster of any professional orchestra. You'll find the list is about half women.

As far as ACD's commented on pandering goes, programming classical music is complicated, and plenty of pandering of various types already goes on. Mostly, there's pandering to the perceived old/conservative audience that supposedly sees classical music as a museum and supposedly is not interested in new music. Those people are often major donors, and upsetting them with "radical" programming can have serious financial consequences for an organization. Note, for example, the lawsuit by the estate or foundation of Sybil Harrington over the use of her money to fund the current Met Tristan und Isolde. The production is by no means radical or unusual, except that it wasn't what the lawsuit terms "traditional" and so not a suitable use of her money.

Music directors and artistic administrators make programming decisions with all sorts of interests in mind: which soloists are available, an organization's commitment to performing new or 20th century music, the size of the venue that's available, whether enough rehearsal time can be scheduled to learn 5 rather than 3 works new to the ensemble, und so weiter.

Which composers to program is just one more decision of that type. I would wager that everyone reading this blog has a list of composers who ought to be played more often, from acknowledged masters such as Hadyn, Bartok, and Dufay to underrated and underplayed women composers such as Ruth Crawford. Everyone has their own bugaboos about programming. You can find a number of my rants about programming at the San Francisco Symphony elswhere on this blog, for example.

Honestly, you might as well program a season with lots of rarely-heard women and minority composers. There'd be some terrific music, and some dreck. That's what happens any time you're programming unfamiliar or new music.

I really ought to rant more about the omission of women composers. Elaine Fine had a few things to say about The Rest is Noise today, and certainly the emergence of important women composers in the second half of the 20th century is a huge story.

At the same time, I'm not going to skip a program of interesting music by living composers because the ensemble didn't program any music by women composers. I'm reminded of a friend of mine who, for a long time, and maybe still, would not read books by dead white men. I thought that was just as silly and arbitrary as only reading books by dead white men.

Lucky Stanford

Philanthropists Peter and Helen Bing have donated $50 million to Stanford for a new performing arts center. That's the same amount of money Lillian Disney donated to the Los Angeles Music Center to fund a new concert hall there.

The press release says this:
Nagata Acoustics’ Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the world’s foremost acousticians, will work on the center’s acoustic design. Toyota’s high-profile projects, among them Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Mariinsky Concert Hall in St. Petersburg, Russia, have received high international praise.
I'll say. After five concerts bathing in the magnificent sound of Disney, I am dreading my next trip to the pathetic acoustics of Davies.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Alto and choral networker par excellence Celeste Winant branched out last week in the sense starting a new blog, Choralista, for discussions about the future of classical choral singing. Yes, it's a cross between Adaptistration and Sandow, but focused on choral music, centered in the Bay Area, and staffed, at present, by a couple of altos.

The other one is, right, me. I've already got some postings up, too.

Celeste invites others to contribute rants, raves, and opinions, and, if you're interested in regular blogging on this subject, to join the blog as a regular. Do come visit!

Jenufa, Los Angeles Opera

My brief review of Jenufa at Los Angeles Opera, in SFCV's Music News column.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Found on YouTube

Is this a promotional video for The Rest is Noise?

Ah, yes, so one might conclude from the closing credits. I was viewer number 156.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

I Feel Sure the Right Person is Out There...

...but it's not me. The LA Phil has an opening for a Manager, Artists Department. The position would be perfect for someone with a degree in music and the tact and discretion of the personal assistant to the Queen of England. From the job description, it seems that the person landing the job gets to be hand-holder, problem-solver, and gopher for guest soloists, composers, and conductors. I imagine that such people have, um, varied temperaments. I especially like these responsibilities, which do not, in fact, appear consecutively in the list:
  • Be "on call" to assist artists with various request/problems at any time.

  • Interpersonal skills require the ability to work with diverse personalities, discretion in dealing with artist and staff, mature presentation, efficient attitude and manner.

  • Other duties as assigned.
That last one could cover a lot of ground.

Coming to iTunes

At the very least, the orchestral concerts that make up Sibelius Unbound will be on iTunes: there were announcements at each of the three programs I caught, but not at either of the two chamber music concerts. (Okay, the Green Umbrella concert, mostly of Saariaho, was not technically part of Sibelius Unbound, but it should have been.)

And am I glad: tonight's program of Pohjola's Daughter and Sibelius's First and Third symphonies was a corker. I can't wait to hear it again (or, for that matter, Radical Light and Wing on Wing.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Met HD Telecasts

The dates, operas, and partial cast lists:
  • Dec 15 – Romeo et Juliet (Netrebko, Gunn, tenor TBA)

  • Jan 1 – Hansel and Gretel (Schaefer, Coote, Plowright, Langridge, Held)

  • Jan 12 – Macbeth (Guleghina, Aronica, Ataneli, Relyea)

  • Feb 16 – Manon Lescaut (Mattila, Giordani, Croft, Travis)

  • Mar 15 – Peter Grimes (Racette, Griffey, Michaels-Moore, Donald Runnicles conducting)

  • Mar 22 – Tristan und Isolde (Voigt, DeYoung, Heppner, Schulte, Salminen)

  • Apr 5 – La Boheme (Gheorghiu, Arteta, Vargas, Tezier, Kelsey, Gradus, Plishka, Nicola Luisotti conducting)

  • Apr 26 – La Fille du Regiment (Dessay, Palmer, Florez, Corbelli, Zoe Caldwell)
I don't give a damn about Fille but will try to get to most of the rest. For lots more info, check the Met Web site.


Picking up a meme from Tim Mangan and Heather Heise, some music that makes me cry:
  • The Schubert Quintet, first movement, second theme, the first time I heard it and occasionally since.

  • Le Nozze di Figaro, too many moments to count, starting at the downbeat of the overture, and including some moments in the act 2 finale, Deh, vieni, that moment when Figaro and Susannah stop with the teasing, and the moment when the Count finally realizes he's been chasing the wrong, er, the right, woman around in the dark. Oh, and "Sua madre?!" Is it odd that the Countess's arias don't get me?

  • Beethoven, Op. 111, second movement, variation, um, three? four?

  • Tristan und Isolde, act 2, I'll find the measure or score marking when I have the score in front of me; it's pretty deep in the love duet someplace.

  • God, how I hate to admit this, but that moment in Madama Butterfly when she brings out the child, and then again at "Tu, tu, piccolo iddio." I knew I was seeing a great performance the time I burst into tears during "Un bel di."


The Fourth Symphony is the most enigmatic piece of music I have ever heard.

I am curious: has anyone ever heard a live performance of his string quartet?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Anxiety Dream

I was singing in an opera. The first performance was approaching, and I couldn't find the conductor, the other performers, the members of the musical staff, the director. I think I had the score. I hadn't learned the part yet. The opera, apparently, was Salome, yes, the Strauss, though I didn't figure that out until someplace near the end of the dream. I was singing the part of the sweet young thing who should be the one to marry the male lead - a character like Micaela in Carmen.

Jump to a performance of the opera. We weren't in a real theater; there weren't real wings, there were no flies. It was more like a garage, a deep, low-ceilinged, rather wide garage. The audience wasn't inside; one side of the building was open and people were watching from outside, mostly sitting on the ground or standing, I think. There was a lot of concrete.

The company had the air of traveling gypsies, or maybe a community theater group. The production looked more like Fiddler on the Roof than Salome. I remember hovering around the curtains that passed for wings and watching the production with horror. I am sure I was visible from the audience sometimes.

I still didn't know the part, so they wouldn't let me go on, but that was fine, because the opera was Salome, and there is no sweet young thing who should marry the male lead. The soprano singing the title character was very bad.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Romance at the Met?

Email from the Met offers the following choices for their Connect at the Met program (singles, meet other singles!):
  • Die Zauberflöte, if you're in your twenties or thirties

  • Iphigénie en Tauride, if you're in your forties and up

  • Le Nozze di Figaro, if you're gay or lesbian
I guess splitting people up like that made sense to someone, but, gosh, why do those not designated gay get split up by age and those designated gay or lesbian get lumped together regardless of age?

Also, I note, as one of the over-40s, that Iphigénie is not an opera that encourages romantic feelings.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Noise Comes to California, and to Google

Alex's book tour brings him to California this week and next. One stop isn't listed, and that's his talk tomorrow at Google.

I, of course, am in Los Angeles, working from our local office and attending Sibelius Unbound at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We will be at opposite ends of the state for Alex's entire trip, as far as I can tell.

But! YouTube to the rescue!

All talks by speakers in the Authors@Google series are filmed and posted to YouTube. You can see talks by the 2008 Presidential candidates, so far including Clinton, McCain, Richardson, Paul, Edwards, and Gravel, presumably with more to come. (That's me asking the public health question in the Edwards Q&A period.) You can see authors from Cory Doctorow to Atul Gawande.

I expect Alex's talk will be posted there by the end of this week, and I will post the URL when the video is available.


Matthew overcomes an obstacle while buying his copy of The Rest is Noise.

I have had my copy in hand since last Friday but I am determined to finish Battle Cry of Freedom before I start it. Well, I might be persuaded to read Noise first, because as Matthew says....

Thursday, October 11, 2007

And Yet...

...having just posted that very long entry about what affects reviewers, I have to say that a series of truly maddening events Tuesday evening did not affect one bit my enjoyment of a spectacular chamber music concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall (Saariaho, Dallapiccolla, and you'll hear more about the concert eventually).

All Alone

[I started this review last March and never finished it; its existence just came up in the comments at oboeinsight, and so I am completing and publishing it now.]

A couple of years back, I started a never-completed blog posting called "Walking Out," about performances of various types where I'd left in the middle. There haven't been very many of these over the years. It's worth going into a little detail about what they were and why:
  • In high school, I walked out of The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, a French film and ostensible comedy that wasn't very funny and seemed anti-Semitic.

  • La Favorite at San Francisco Opera. I dislike Donizetti, I hated Sonia Ganassi and her tenor, the production was ugly. I fled during the second act.

  • The Merry Widow at SFO, an overblown production with a lead-footed and tin-eared adaptation by Wendy Wasserstein, plus, Flicka called in sick that day.

  • Rosenkavalier at SFO. This begins to be more interesting, because the performance was perfectly fine (Mackerras/Fleming, Graham). We got there late (who would have dreamed Rosenkavalier started at 1:30 p.m., not 2 p.m.?) and had to stand through Act I without being able to see a thing; this put me badly out of sorts. Act II was so brightly lit that I had a hard time watching it, and I was still in a bad mood. So I decamped in the middle of the act.

  • A play that will remain nameless, seen in London in 2004; it remains nameless because it will surely be performed in San Francisco some time, and why prejudice anyone else against it? I was tired and had had a hard time picking out a play from the Leicester Sq. discount ticket booth; the theater was Victorian, the seats tiny. The playwright's style got on my nerves; the set distracted me because I thought the actors were physically at risk. I left at the interval. Reading reviews later, I found that the second act was universally considered stronger than the first - so perhaps I'd made a mistake. The scary stage design has lasted through productions elsewhere.

  • As Good as It Gets, at a point where I feared that both dog torture and homophobia were going to be big themes of the movie. Plus, I mostly can't stand Jack Nicholson.

All this is by way of making the point that factors having nothing whatsoever with the quality of what you're seeing on the stage can affect your response to what you see. In a different mood, I expect I would have enjoyed that Rosenkavalier and at least liked the nameless play.

It's not much of a problem for most of us, but it's certainly something I think about when I review a performance, whether it's for SFCV or this blog. What kind of a mood am I in? What worries or discomforts might be affecting how I respond to a particular work?

All this is by way of disclaimer leading up to the comments below, about John Adams's new opera, A Flowering Tree, because I am alone among the reviewers in not having liked it very much.

I don't have a paid review out there someplace; this is it. A few factors undoubtedly influenced how I heard and saw the piece. My mother got pneumonia at the beginning of February; by the beginning of March, she was almost completely recovered, but February was very hard for me. I saw the Friday night performance of the Adams and was dead tired. On top of that, the shuttle trip up from Mountain View was longer and less physically comfortable than I would have liked. In short, I was not in the sort of mood I like to be in when I arrive at a performance

So, about A Flowering Tree.

My problems with the piece are largely extra-musical. I thought the music always effective and often extremely beautiful. But I hated the libretto and disliked the staging.

And here comes another disclaimer: you need to know that I saw A Flowering Tree from the second tier, far from the stage, and also that I had had to make a last-minute - VERY last-minute - ticket exchange. I wasn't even sure I'd make it past the dragons ushers in time for the curtain. None of the other reviewers had to contend with that and they were all a lot closer to the action, and the director's perspective, than I was.

But about that libretto.

I think that somehow John Adams doesn't believe in opera as a form, despite having written several masterly and widely-performed operas. He doesn't like operatic singing, for one thing, and evidently believes that amplification somehow changes or improves operatic vocal style. The orchestra in Doctor Atomic was amplified! He and Peter Sellars compiled the Doctor Atomic libretto from various sources that resulted in a mixed bag of a libretto, and he is one hundred percent responsible for the libretto of A Flowering Tree. [Note: the libretto was a joint effort by Adams and Sellars. See the comments to this posting.]

It's a libretto in which at least 40% of the text is assigned to a narrator; the two main characters each sing arias of sorts, but barely engage with each other vocally; a libretto in which dance plays as much of a part in the action as the singing. Is it an opera? Maybe my mistake was to take the assigned genre too seriously. But the text doesn't sound very singable, and it's pretty unpoetic. A friend who is in a position to know tells me that Adams evidently didn't know how the characters' South Asian names should be accented, and consequently, he consistently misset one of them.

Besides those issues, I didn't like the plot; I hated the way the female character was constantly being forced to transform herself from human to tree form, and the fact that apparently her husband was only turned on by her when she was transformed or in the act of transforming. (If this is inaccurate....I don't have the libretto in front of me.) I disliked the way she was referred to as a thing when she got trapped halfway through a transformation.

I didn't like the use of dancing, which seemed weirdly superfluous; I didn't like the amount of writhing on the floor.

In retrospect, I think that A Flowering Tree would work much better for me on record, and preferably not in English, so that I could ignore the text and staging and focus on the glorious music. But I also have to note that a trusted friend who saw A Flowering Tree from the orchestra section of Davies tells me that he found the dance very moving and loved the staging. Perspective really counts, and I can't say how much more I might have liked the piece if I'd seen it up close.

Read the reviewers here:


Appomattox reviews are appearing all over the net; more to come:
  • Jon Carroll in the Chronicle, not exactly a review

  • Updated, obviously, Oct. 11.

    I'm One

    Not that you didn't know! But I join my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered sisters and brothers in saying Happy National Coming Out Day!

    Fans (Of Leonard Cohen, That Is) May Disagree

    However, I am not one: Joshua Kosman on The Book of Longing.

    P. S. Put down the coffee or water bottle before reading.

    Wednesday, October 10, 2007

    Monday, October 08, 2007


    Battle Hymn of a Divided Republic, October 8, 2007.

    Hail and Farewell

    News of two opera singer deaths, from opera-l -
    • Gary Rideout, tenor, age 55. I haven't seen anything about the cause of death yet. He sang in SF quite a few times between 1989 and 2001, and I saw most of those appearances. I remember him best as Flavio in Norma one year (where he outsang the wretch attempting Pollione) and, more memorably, as Mime in Das Rheingold and Siegfried. He brought off the latter, a long and difficult role, with aplomb, again sounding far better than the ghastly Wolfgang Schmidt, who sang the title role.
    • Giuseppe Valdengo, baritone, 93, best known for singing Falstaff on Toscanini's great recording of that great opera. I do not quite remember the circumstances, but he autographed postcards for a number of opera-l members some years ago, and I sent him a thank-you note in return.

    Saturday, October 06, 2007

    Going South

    Appomattox last night - watch SFCV for my review - and today I'm off to Santa Monica, where I will be working from my company's office there and covering the LA Philharmonic's Sibelius Festival. I will be blogging and emailing as usual.

    Friday, October 05, 2007

    As Long as We're Talking About Cellists....

    Alex Ross has reported a couple of times on Jamie Foxx's cello lessons, and today Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll is talking about music lessons. He claims along the way that "Cello players frequently look suicidal."

    He needs to go to the San Francisco Symphony more often, where Associate Principal Cellist Peter Weyrich always looks very happy to be playing the cello.

    Thursday, October 04, 2007


    Tickets are available in every section for the premiere tomorrow night of Appomattox.

    San Francisco Opera has provided a tiny preview - the production photos are already posted.

    Tuesday, October 02, 2007

    Compare and Contrast 5

    Different strokes for different folks vis-a-vis Glass:A friend who wishes to remain anonymous makes the following contribution to the Glass debate:
    Lullaby--Oh my!
    Soporific is that guy!
    To hear the same arpeggio
    While down and down my eyelids grow
    And DUH-duh rhythms thud and glug
    Just makes me want to PULL THE PLUG!

    Monday, October 01, 2007

    Philip Glass at San Francisco Performances

    Chambered Glass, Philip Glass, piano, Wendy Sutter, cello, Mick Rossi, percussion.

    What to Do?

    The Rest is Noise is short of its official publication date, but reviews are starting to arrive.

    My policy as a concert reviewer is that I don't read read others' reviews until I file my own. I have a copy of Noise on order, and I will have lots to say, I presume, though no one is paying me to say it.

    So, I will be collecting links to reviews in one place, the better to read them in one fell swoop after I'm done reading The Rest is Noise. Stay tuned!


    Congratulations to Marin Alsop, who made history last week.

    Something Going Around?

    First Steve and Dr. L.P., now Terry and Hilary.

    Congratulations, Terry, and much happiness!

    Sunday, September 30, 2007

    Tannhäuser, San Francisco Opera

    So I saw Tannhäuser at the opera last night.

    You may not believe this, but before Saturday I'd never heard the damn thing from beginning to end. I don't own a recording, and it was last performed in San Francisco just before I went back to regular opera attendence. I know it only at the bleeding-chunks level, that is, the overture, hymn to love, hymn to the evening star, Elisabeth's greeting to the hall of song. I'm sure I've heard her prayer and his Rome narrative, but not often enough to remember them.

    Stupidest. Plot. Ever. Elisabeth: drippiest female character in an array of drippy Wagner women. It's very hard to have any sympathy at all for her. And you know that all the knights are only pissed at Tannhäuser because he got it on with the Goddess of Love and they didn't. Elisabeth is right to try to get him off the hook: he has surely learned a few good moves from the Goddess.

    Also, we're burdened with what must be the stupidest production ever, well, maybe not, but good grief. If you have to launch the opera with a ballet, for God's sake don't have the dancers doing the hokey-pokey and bad 1980s aerobics-class routines. Don't have Wolfram breaking Elisabeth's neck after her prayer. We understand that the Bacchanal has something to do with sex, but you don't have to make it explicit. At least give Venus and Tannhäuser a BED if you must. Do you want to leave her back abraded??

    Don't have half-naked children crawling out of the dirt you've strewn all over the stage. Don't put a full-sized concert harp on stage and then never have anyone play it. Don't crush someone under the harp, and if you do, don't have him revived by being passed through the trunk of a tree. Don't embarrass the Goddess of Love by making her dress in a towel, and do not have her open the towel so she can flash Tannhäuser (but not us).* Don't trap Venus and Tannhäuser inside a ring of fire for 15 minutes, leaving the audience worried that they're about to see a fine singer burnt to a crisp. We really do get that they have the hots for each other without the visual prompt. Don't put a tree on stage and then have it deteriorate in each act - what do you think it is, the World Ash? Wrong damn Wagner opera! And what's a tree doing in the Hall of Song anyway?

    Don't have the Landgraf enter on a horse. Alloy is a beauty, but mostly a distraction, with everyone in the audience - and on stage - hoping his feeding schedule was properly arranged. Don't put the singers on the ground unless they're dead or dying. Don't decorate the pilgrims with HATE and other sins all spelled out for us. We get that they have some good reason for traveling to Rome. Don't have all the knights holding their swords by the blade: no real knight would risk getting cut or damaging his sword. And don't have pages driving swords into the ground to act as fence posts penning in the knights during the battle of the singers.

    At least there were no fedoras or black trench coats to be seen. Still, if Graham Vick and the choreographer had taken the stage for bows, you bet I would have booed them lustily, and since I was in Row E of the orchestra, they would have heard me, too.

    That said, I'm glad I went and sorry I can't go again, because musically, all was magnificence. Donald Runnicles was at his best, and he is never better than in Wagner; the orchestra played with their customary miraculous skill, some bumps at the beginning of the overture notwithstanding. Hats off to the harpist, especially, for many great moments. Runnicles insisted on the Paris version; I love the Tristanesque flavor of the Paris music but it makes for a musically incoherent text, alas. I can't overstate the magnificence of the chorus.

    With the exception of James Rutherford's woolly-voiced Wolfram - and he was not unmusical - the casting could hardly have been better. Petra Lang was a sultry, red-haired Venus, sometimes a bit stretched at the top (for a crossover role, maybe this is better for a soprano with a solid low register rather than a mezzo with a solid top). Eric Halvorson's Landgraf was solidly sung, if with a remaining tinge of the wobble that marred his Gremin in the Mansouri years. Ji Young Yang made her SFO debut with a gorgeously-sung Shepherd.

    Best of all were the Elisabeth of Petra Maria Schnitzer and Tannhäuser of Peter Seiffert. He's a wonderful singer with a voice that is not quite beautiful, though it may once have been. At 53, I can imagine there's some wear and tear on his voice, and it showed occasionally in a slight wobble on loud notes at the top of his register. In compensation, he is perfectly accurate and very musical, rare things in this punishing repertory and especially this monstrously difficult role. It is true that his singing was slanted to the stentorian and could have used more softness at times, but his utter security and musicality more than made up for that.

    It's funny, I heard him on a Met broadcast of Tannhäuser a few years back and thought him wobbly and not very good. After hearing him live, I will chalk up my previous impression to the terrible engineering and microphone placement for the broadcasts.

    Schnitzer has the perfect voice for Elisabeth, and also for Eva and Elsa; a beautiful, easily-produced, high-set lyric soprano with superb control and just enough volume for this role. She overdid the winsomeness and never seemed truly tragic, but it's hard to know how much of this to blame on Vick's direction. Those three roles, Freia, and Gutrune will be her limit in Wagner; she hasn't got the low register for Sieglinde, Isolde, and Brunnhilde. I think she must be stunning in Strauss.

    Update: The Standing Room reminds me that I meant to say something above about taxidermy.

    * The last time I saw this trick it was Rosemary Joshua as Semele, at ENO. She sang "Endless Pleasure" wrapped in the towel, then strolled offstage and calmly dropped the towel three steps from the wings. Joshua is a slim thing, and needless to say Ruth Ann Swenson, in the highly elaborate production seen here in 2000, did not follow suit.

    Saturday, September 29, 2007

    Desperately Seeking

    One ticket to Book of Longing at Stanford next month. It's the new Philip Glass/Leonard Cohen collaboration. The ticket is for my partner, not me. Let me know the price, etc.

    In Search of Mozart

    I got email about the film In Search of Mozart on Sept. 19, and should have blogged it before now. I am booked for the weekend and can't get there, but maybe you can.

    The film sounds extremely interesting. Try to ignore the awful first paragraph of the blurb at the web site of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I have already complained about it, you betcha.

    Thursday, September 27, 2007

    A Bargain

    Some years ago, I asked Alex Stepanov what his favorite Ring was, and to my surprise, he named Marek Janowski's. I had heard this performance in the early/mid 1980s because one of my housemates owned it, but I was not any kind of judge of singing or Wagner performances then.

    Alex's recommendation stuck in my head, and when the Janowski was re-released by RCA a couple of years back I picked up a copy, for all of $80. It seemed a bargain to me; among other things, I paid only $20 more than I would have paid for a single opera in the outrageously-priced Testament set conducted by Keilberth.

    It took some time for me to listen through the Janowski, and I'm sorry I didn't blog it at the time. The cycle gets off to a slowish start; with a comparatively anonymous Rheingold and a Walkuere first act that needs more impetuousness. (That said, it's still one of the best-sung recorded versions of Act I, with Jerusalem, Moll, and Norman.) Then it picks up, and it's a really fine performance up to the very end. The biggest problem is Theo Adam's barky, scrawny Wotan, and that is certainly a big problem. Everyone else sings well, some much better than that. Jeanine Altmeyer is a terrific Bruennhilde; no, she doesn't have the Nilsson trumpet in her throat, but she has a beautiful voice and is one of the most interesting and expressive Valkyries on record. Peter Schreier's Mime has to be heard, as well.

    I found out today that Berkshire Record Outlet has the Janowski for all of $42. Get yourself a copy; you won't regret it.


    Some readers of this blog know that I am something of a public health geek. Yesterday, for example, I got to tell Steven Johnson, author of The Ghost Map, that John Snow has been a household god of mine and Dr. Strega's for a long time. Yes, it helps that I live with a partner who holds a Doctorate of Public Health degree, but this interest of mine didn't start with her.

    So you could say that I'm curious about the person who visits this blog from the Centers for Disease Control. I would welcome private email if you're willing to identify yourself.

    Happy Birthday

    Nineteen fifty-seven was a very good year, and part of the evidence is that Peter Sellars turns fifty today, about midway between Jonathan Bellman's birthday and mine. This is as good a moment as any to mention my first encounter with the Sellars genius, at a now-legendary production.

    He was at Harvard when I was at Brandeis. In May September of 1979, a friend found a review of a condensed Ring performance being staged, improbably, at Harvard's Loeb Theater. The review said something about puppets. The friend suggested we go, and a bunch of us got tickets.

    We walked in and found that the Loeb was in its theater-in-the-round configuration, but with only three-quarters of the seats in place. No orchestra was in sight. The lights went down, a trap in floor opened, and in the dark we heard the Rheingold prelude emanating from speakers. Spotlit sheets of mylar, manipulated by the fully-visible stage crew, rippled below floor level.

    It was pure magic: the perspective was right, the music was Solti.

    The prelude reached the entry of the Rheintochterin.

    "Weia! Waga!" sang the bright green muppet puppet playing Woglinde. "Woge, du Welle,walle zur Wiege! Wagala weia! Wallala, weiala weia!"

    That nicely punctured the reverent mood. The rest of the production was marked by just that balance of cheekiness and affection for the Ring. The giants were macrame, and you could see them only from the hips down, hung from the flies on the proscenium stage. The galloping Valkyries were children's hobby-horses, the magic provided by the best use of a disco ball I've ever seen in my life.

    It was a great introduction to the Ring on stage. I wish I could see it again, or that I could find a more complete description of the proceedings.

    Thank you for that, Peter, and other productions since and to come.

    UPDATED: The Puppet Ring was in September, not May. And a contemporaneous review makes it clear that the giants were made of potato sacks, not macrame. H/T Alex Ross for publishing a copy of the program and sending me a link to the review.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    On Order

    Saariaho: Château De L'âme, Etc / Salonen
    Grisey: Les Espaces Acoustiques / Stefan
    Lindberg: Clarinet Concerto, Gran Duo /
    Saariaho: L'amour De Loin / Finley, Upshaw
    Saariaho: Du Cristal, ...à La Fumé
    Glass: Satyagraha / Keene, Reeve, Perry,

    Name That Tune!

    A game played in many places, including The Well, where I've had an account for many years.

    My friend Mike Walsh put together a particularly fiendish round of Name That Tune recently. Here's what he said about it:

    The three clips are about 40 seconds each, and I'm confident everyone [reading this on the Well] can name the tunes. There are two meta-questions:
    1. What do all three clips have in common?
    2. What distinguishes each clip from the other two?
    So, what are the tunes, and what are the answers to the questions about? The clips are here, in MP3 format. I wish there were a way to hide blog comments from view.

    Friday, September 21, 2007

    Saint Francois d'Assise

    Alex reports that Gerard Mortier plans to stage Messiaen's opera Saint Francois d'Assise. (Read the whole New York Sun interview here.)

    I saw the American premiere of Saint Francois at San Francisco Opera five years ago. I caught only one performance, and note the following:
    • I'm a Messiaen fan. I love Turangalila, Quator pour la fin du temps, and almost everything else I have heard by him.

    • Saint Francois was the closest thing to torture I have ever experienced in the opera house or concert hall. I stumbled out of the second act thinking it had lasted three hours and was shocked to find it had only been 90 minutes.

    • I was sufficiently traumatized by the "Sermon to the Birds" - and the preparatory discussion of the birds - that I flinched months later at the birdsong in Kata Kabanova.

    • The night I saw St. Francois, I told a friend in instant messages that "St. Francois makes Parsifal look like Die Fledermaus."
    Nonetheless, I will have to try again, as I have regretted for five years the fact that I only saw one performance. My working theory about my response is that I was suffering from the same problem some entrenched fans of Italian opera have when they see a Wagner opera for the first time: they are so used to the time scale of Verdi and Puccini that they are utterly defeated by the vast reaches of Wagner. I suspect that St. Francois is to Tristan as Tristan is to Il Trovatore.

    Readings for a New Opera 4

    I bought a ticket to the opening night of Appomattox as soon as San Francisco Opera started accepted single-ticket orders. The fall opera reviews had not yet been assigned by SFCV, and I wanted to see the opening regardless. By the time the assignments rolled around, I had plans to attend the Sibelius Festival in Los Angeles, and it looked as though I'd be heading south on October 6, the day after the premiere, so I took Appomattox off my list of operas I'd like to review.

    As things have turned out, I inherited the Appomattox assignment from the original writer. I will use the reviewer's ticket and my partner will use the ticket I purchased. (For some reason, SFO is giving reviewers a single seat. I understand this when it's Music@Menlo, which performs in venues seating 200 and 350, but War Memorial Opera House, with its 3200 seats, is an order of magnitude bigger. Color me puzzled.)

    I have not studied American history in any organized fashion since I was in high school, a shocking number of years ago, so you can guess the state of my knowledge of the Civil War. I asked around and cruised the downtown San Francisco Borders Books, then purchased these at Cody's in Berkeley:
    • The Civil War, by Bruce Catton. I've now finished this concise and extremely readable history of the war. The length makes the tale it tells no less moving, and perhaps even heightens the intensity. I liked it very much, and yet I'm all too aware that it was published in 1960 and is thus nearly 50 years behind current research into the turmoil.

    • Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson. Unlike Catton, McPherson is a professional historian, and brings all of the historian's tools to bear in this 900-page 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner. He spends 50 pages just providing an overview of the economic and social state of the United States in mid-century; the footnotes could provide me with years of reading. (A vast survey of the 19th century transportation revolution: just my thing.) I'm only 20 pages in, but loving it so far.

    • Memoirs, by Ulysses S. Grant. A friend reminded me that I could read very directly about one important participant's experience of the war and Appomattox. I plan to at least skim this before the day.

    • The Civil War, by Ken Burns. Okay, not a reading. I missed this in its PBS incarnation; thank goodness for Netflix.
    I'll still be at the Sibelius Festival, by the way - but I'll be filing my Appomattox review from Santa Monica.