Sunday, January 28, 2007

Goings-on at the Berkeley Symphony

Correction, January 28. I made a significant error below, and George Thomson has sent me the correct information. For the last decade, Kent Nagano has led 3 or 4 rehearsals per Berkeley Symphony concert, and Thomson has led one or two. I apologize for the error, which is entirely mine and which seriously misrepresented the division of labor for rehearsals at the BSO. I am very happy to post this correction. I am also making changes in line.

The Berkeley Symphony is more famous than most regional orchestras of its size and budget, and there are two primary reasons for this fame: very imaginative programming (with many contemporary works and commissions) and music director Kent Nagano.

Maestro Nagano, born in Berkeley, came to the Berkeley Symphony nearly 30 years ago. He has had an international career for 20 of those years, and currently has gigs at the Montreal Symphony and Bavarian State Opera.

What follows is mostly wrong:He's not in town all that often, and it's an open secret around the Bay Area musical community that Associate Conductor and Artistic Coordinator George Thomson does most of the orchestral preparation, with Nagano flying in to lead a rehearsal or two before the concerts he conducts. Think, for a moment, about this: it means that Thomson has been working with the concertmaster to determine bowings and with the librarian to mark up the scores. It means that most Berkeley Symphony rehearsal time for the last decade or more has been under Thomson, not Nagano. On top of this, Thomson has led the Symphony's music education program and conducted the important "Under Construction" series of works in progress.

This is accurate to the best of my current knowledge:Nagano is not in town all that often, but has shown remarkable commitment to the Berkeley Symphony anyway, leading most of the orchestra's rehearsals, with Associate Conductor George Thomson leading one or two before each concert. Thomson has also functioned as Artistic Coordinator, he has led the symphony's music education program, and he has conducted the important "Under Construction" series of works in progress.

Well, that was the situation until last week.

On Saturday, January 13, Thomson led the orchestra in a concert called Hold On, which included an important local premiere. (I reviewed it for San Francisco Classical Voice.)

On Thursday, the Berkeley Symphony held a press conference at which it announced Nagano's resignation as Music Director and said that an "international search" would be held to select a successor.

Now, take a look at the press release. There's no mention of Thomson and his contributions at all, and the fact that an "international search" is being held implies that despite all the work he's done, he's not in the running for the Music Director post. Really, it's a shabby way to treat someone who has done so much for the organization.

On Friday, Thomson turned in his own resignation. That speaks volumes. On his personal Web site, Thomson wrote the following:
Effective today I have resigned from my positions with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. In light of the Orchestra's announcement regarding Kent Nagano's departure, the Orchestra has made a plan for its upcoming seasons which of necessity excludes me from the level of involvement I have of late enjoyed. Furthermore, I felt that my close relationship to the musicians might be an impediment to the "international search" for a successor to Kent that the Orchestra has chosen to undertake. I wish the Berkeley Symphony the best of luck in their upcoming transition.
More coverage in SFCV's Music News column.

(Full disclosure: I've never met or spoken with Thomson, but I was recruited for SFCV by Michelle Dulak Thomson, to whom he is married, and she was my first editor at SFCV.)(I guess it can now be said that I have spoken with Thomson, with whom I have been in email contact over the last couple of days.)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Sontraud Speidel at the Hillside Club, Berkeley

Berkeley's Hillside Club is the home of an imaginatively-programmed concert series that mixes jazz, world, classical, and other musical styles.

This month's concerts include The Four Bags, who might be called a chamber-jazz group, on January 26, and, on January 31, the pianist Sontraud Speidel. I'm likely to get to the latter concert. Speidel's program includes works by Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Schumann (the virtuoso pianist and great love of Schumann's life), and Johannes Brahms. The latter is represented by his rarely-heard Opus 1 piano sonata, Schumann by Kreisleriana and Kinderszenen, and Clara Schumann by Quatre pièces fugitives.

All concerts are $15 ($10 for Hillside Club members). The Hillside Club is located at 2286 Cedar Street in Berkeley; phone (510) 845-1350 for more information about the concert series or check the concert web site.

Friday, January 19, 2007

If you're in NYC....

I received an extremely interesting press release a few weeks ago. If you're in NYC, you might want to check this out:

January 25-27, 2007, “Decasia Live at Angel Orensanz” will mark just the third time in five years that audiences will have the opportunity to experience this work as it was originally conceived by its makers: a live site-specific multimedia performance with a full size orchestra.

"Decasia" came about when The Europaischer Musikmonat (European Music Month) commissioned composer Michael Gordon to write a symphony to be performed by the 55-piece Basel Sinfonietta and to be staged by Ridge Theater. At the 2001 premiere performance, the Basel Sinfonietta stood on a triangular pyramid 3 tiers high, completely surrounding the audience within. Bill Morrison's acclaimed film was created as part of this original production using Michael Gordon's music as its soundtrack. In 2002, Cantaloupe Music released a cd of live recordings of these performances.

A remarkable piece of experimental cinema and new classical music, "Decasia" has reached an audience that is unprecedented by a work of its kind. Two months after the Basel performances, "Decasia" premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, and quickly developed an ardent cult following. In December 2002, the film premiered on the Sundance Channel and the New York Times Magazine ran a feature by Lawrence Weschler in which he described watching it for the first time: “I found myself completely absorbed, transfixed, dumbstruck, a pillow of air lodged in my stilled open mouth, which I don’t think I thereupon managed to close for the next seventy minutes."

J. Hoberman of the Village Voice listed “Decasia” as one of his ten favorite films of 2003, calling it “that rare thing: a movie with avant-garde and universal appeal, inspiring trembling and gratitude.” The film ultimately became the subject of five more New York Times articles, in which it was described as “a cult classic” and “a landmark opus.” The Philadelphia Inquirer said: “If a great, innovative film has been made in the last few years, this is it."

But nothing approximates the sheer power of the live environmental performance. “Decasia Live” was remounted in the original site-specific format again at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2004. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross described the 2004 St. Ann’s performances as:

“The darkest, grandest noise of the musical season so far—the fanfare to an angry American autumn—was Michael Gordon’s film symphony “Decasia,” as played by fifty-five furiously committed students from the Manhattan School of Music, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, in Brooklyn. The performance took place back in September, but the experience is still burned in my mind…Gordon’s score weds the hypnotic aura of minimalism to the detuned snarl of highbrow punk. It packs a punch on CD, but it needs a live performance to unveil all its power…Even as “Decasia” celebrates raw sound, it summons an atmosphere of dread. Too many of its images resemble Cold War footage of structures vaporizing in nuclear tests. Why, then, are you left with a visceral thrill? Perhaps it’s the joy of surviving what looks and sounds like the end of the world.”

Now in January, audiences will have the opportunity to see this remarkable piece of art live with music performed by The Manhattan School of Music's Contemporary Ensemble, TACTUS, at the Angel Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side. Originally designed as a synagogue in 1840 by Berlin architect Alexander Seltzer and inspired by the cathedral of Cologne and the German romantic movement of Heinrich Heine and Beethoven, the Angel Orensanz Center has become a beacon of education and culture in the city of New York. The marriage of this piece and this performance space will be an event not to be missed and not to be forgotten.

January 25, 26, & 27 at 7:00pm and 9:30pm nightly.

Angel Orensanz Center for the Arts, 172 Norfolk St., New York.

Tickets $25 advance, available through

Decasia info

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


That one syllable about sums up my initial reaction to Tan Dun's The First Emperor, but, really, I do need to provide an expanded review, so you'll understand how I reached that conclusion. In the end, I think it's possible that the piece can be salvaged, but it will take an awful lot of hard work.

First, the good.

The broadcast medium, high-definition TV, works very, very well. The picture is big, bright, clear. Brian Large's direction was good, much better than I'd expected based on Met telecasts he's done. I'd like more distance shots than he uses, because sometimes it's important to see both the singer and on-stage reactions to what is being sung. I sometimes felt I was missing a reaction that would be interesting or relevant to the plot.

On the other hand, imaginative camera placement allowed some angles you'd never see in the opera house. One camera must have been in the prompter's box (or equivalent). There were occasional shots showing part of the house and part of the stage.

The broadcast also sounded good, less compressed than the radio broadcasts and with no sense that the microphones were too close. It's also true that the sound was more like a recording than like a live opera performance. You could sometimes hear the voices and orchestra resounding through the hall, but the blend and balances were nothing like what you'd hear if you were sitting in the theater.

I liked the intermission features, which were film-and-TV appropriate, not glosses on the radio features. Not that it wouldn't have been amusing to stick a camera in List Hall and watch the quiz contestants embarrass themselves, and, really, Sills should have shut up about getting Domingo alone in his dressing room and locking his wife out. Hasn't she heard the rumors about him?? I wondered, briefly, if the interview were really live, but the David Beckham reference scotched that thought. The little documentary on the making of The First Emperor was also entertaining; I love rehearsals and technical details, and it was definitely fun to see the singers going a bit nuts trying to wrap their vocal cords around the music.

The cast was super; I have nothing bad to say about any of them. They all sang and acted well. Elizabeth Futral made the Princess's music sound..... uh...nothing could make that music sound easy, but she sang it about as naturally as it could be sung. Paul Groves sounded vocally strained the last couple of times I heard him in S.F.; not here, where he sounded great. Poor Suzanne Mentzer had almost nothing to do, and was fine in what she had. (I have plenty to say about the reasons that perhaps she was given so little to do.)

I loved Michelle DeYoung's Shaman and Wu Hsing-Kuo's marvelous Ying-Yang Master, though I found the two characters a bit cryptic. Both functioned more as choruses or commentators than as participants in the plot - but they also got some of the best music in the piece, because....well, see below.

Hao Jiang Tian is a much better singer than I had thought based on radio broadcasts. Domingo sang well and had clearly worked hard to learn the music (the broadcast was sensitive enough that the prompter was audible a couple of times feeding him lines - so maybe he could have worked a little harder). I wish his diction had been better, but then, if you hand a Spanish tenor a barely-singable English text by two native speakers of Chinese, perhaps the results won't be ideal.

The piece certainly looks great, in a spare-no-expense way. Gorgeous costumes, interesting sets, imaginative staging, the placement of some of the musicians on the stage (and their involvement in the plot) - all excellent. As usual, the Met orchestra played like fiends, and it was fun to see them acting as the chorus in one interlude. It was obvious both from shots of the pit and from how well the parts held together that Tan Dun is a terrific conductor.

Now, about the music, a severely mixed bag.

Every reviewer has commented on the split personality of The First Emperor. Some of the music is brilliant and arresting, and that would be all of the music that sounds distinctly Chinese. The opening scene is a stunner, hieratic and incantatory, the Ying-Yang Master dancing about the stage and the Shaman declaiming. It all changes about ten measures or so before Domingo's first entrance; with a score in front of me, I could show you the exact phrase.

And that's when things deteriorate. What follows is fake Italian opera. No, really, worse than that: it sounds like bad imitation Andrew Lloyd-Webber. So bad that I laughed out loud a couple of times. SO BAD, so sickly-sweet, so smarmy.

Tan Dun occasionally quotes from or refers to other operas. A friend reports having heard both Madama Butterfly and, weirdly enough, Peter Grimes. I was shocked to hear a near-direct quotation from Turandot in the last big crowd scene. It wasn't the first time I expected Birgit Nilsson to appear in garish makeup and a four-foot-high headdress, but, as we all know, Puccini did it better. I don't know what Tan Dun was thinking, wandering so far from his obvious strengths into such serious lapses of taste.

I heard some weaknesses even in those sections written from strength, mainly in the pacing. Some of the problems stem from weaknesses in the libretto, but there are also sections - including that opening scene - when the music simply goes on for too long, and it feels like the opera grinds to a halt. My internal alarm clock went BOING! two minutes from the end of the opening; in the second act, the opera sounds as if it ends twice in the ten minutes before the music finally stops.

I suspect those problems can be fixed pretty easily. But I don't know what exactly can be done about the libretto short of a total rewrite. The novelist Ha Jin and the composer himself concocted the libretto together. Both are native speakers of Chinese; neither has written a libretto, a stage play, or poetry. Whether they would be capable of writing a convincing dramatic work in a Chinese style, I don't know, but what they've come up with is an unsingable hybrid. It's neither fish nor fowl, torn structurally and musically between Chinese and Italian styles. The text is simply a horror. It's not poetic; it's difficult to sing; the English is poorly set.

I imagine they were in a difficult position, given that the customer was the Metropolitan Opera: maybe they wanted to write something in a style that would be recognizable by an audience steeped in Western opera. But the Met audience has welcomed quite a few operas in the last twenty years in various modern musical and performance styles; it's not quite as conservative as it's usually portrayed to be.

I wish the issues in the libretto were limited to the difficulties of singing it. But the pacing is poor and the characters' behavior is, to say the least, opaque and unmotivated.

The plotting is terrible, and I don't mean in that convoluted way that, say Il Trovatore is badly plotted. In Trovatore, at least the characters' emotional motivations and personalities are discernable. In The First Emperor, no such luck. Among other things, we're asked to believe that the Princess is a pure and innocent virgin when she's given music and texts that belong with a knowing woman of the world - say, the Marschallin in "Rosenkavalier." The best explanation we get of why the Emperor wants a new Chinese anthem is "Loud music makes us weak." What?? This is especially hard to swallow in an opera where the Western-style music is pap and the Chinese-style music fresh and imaginative. But all sorts of horrible things happen because of his desire for a new anthem - and the anthem he gets, in the end, is musical CRAP.

Then there's the treatment of the female characters. We have the mother of the Princess, who gets hardly any music, and who seems weirdly uninvolved with her young daughter's life and fate. We have the Princess, who is allowed to work her wiles on Jianli to persuade him to write the new anthem, but who after exercising them to the fullest - and regaining the power to walk! why did nobody tell me that sex could heal the crippled?? - is punished for her success, because good girls who are engaged to powerful generals don't have sex with other men! We have the Shaman, who apparently doesn't have very strong powers, since she doesn't provide an accurate description in the last scene of what happened to the Princess and the General. Did the librettists think they had to do that with the Shaman to justify the appearance of the ghosts of the Princess and General??

To its credit, the Met put an enormous amount of time and money into The First Emperor. I wish someone had eyeballed the libretto during its formative period and told the authors the truth about it, considering that it took one hearing for me (and every other reviewer) to spot the problems with it. But who would have done that? The commission was issued during the Volpe years, when the Met wasn't exactly getting what I'd call consistent artistic direction. I'm willing to bet that Peter Gelb will exercise a little more control over future commissions.

Can this opera be saved? Well, maybe. Justin Davidson reports about the opera and has some interesting ideas about how it got where it is and how to fix it.

If I were in charge of that project, here's what I'd do:
  • Get Mark Adamo or someone of equal theatrical flair and musical experience to rewrite the libretto. (Read the synopsis here to get a sense of the issues.)

  • Throw out all the fake Puccini and replace it with new music in the Chinese style.

  • Do something about the female characters.

  • Do something about the overall plot. (See bullet point 1 above.)

Minor postscript: How I wish I'd called this posting "Ha-shi-WOOF" after the Shaman's chanting in the ghost scene. And by the way, does anyone know what "Ha-shi-woo" means? If anything?

Friday, January 12, 2007


I've just migrated to the new version of Blogger. I am about to try to customize my template, meaning the look of Iron Tongue of Midnight is going to change wildly over the next couple of days. To start with, the first thing that will happen is that all of my customizations will go away. Sigh....

[Okay, I've gotten some of the changes made. Not sure if I will be able to split the page to add another column, though! Plus, just what colors was I using....?]

[Next question: I cannot bear that the post titles are now links. UGLY! Whose idea was it, anyway??]

The First Emperor

Tomorrow's the HD broadcast of The First Emperor. I am debating whether to go or not. On one hand, it's a turkey the reviews have all been negative. On the other, $18 is a lot cheaper than flying to NYC to see it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dream Come True

San Francisco Opera names Nicola Luisotti music director designate. He'll succeed Donald Runnicles in the 2009-10 season.

I jumped up and down a lot when he conducted Forza here during the 2005-06 season. I'm so glad about this decision.