Sunday, April 29, 2007


I'd planned to do some blogging this weekend - mostly I have been sleeping off a sore throat and fever, which, alas, kept from both The Damnation of Faust at the Symphony and the Cal Bach program.

BART has enough capacity, in form of extra cars, to run longer-than-usual trains following the little accident this morning. AC Transit, the East Bay's bus agency, doesn't have extra capacity, according to this quotation in the Chron:
Johnson said AC Transit, like most of the region's transit agencies, doesn't have a large stock of extra buses or extra personnel that can be mobilized in emergencies.

This is only part of the general infrastructure problem we have in the US, where so many systems - electrical grid, water, etc. - are so fragile that one bad accident can cripple an area.

I also call to your attention the fact that chemical manufacturers have been allowed to drag their feet and block post-9/11 legislation requiring them to shore up security at their facilities. This accident resulted from one 9,000 gallon truck exploding and burning. We have several very large refineries in the Bay Area and, I'm sure, chemical plants. Use your imagination, and then write your congresscritters and ask them to put money into protecting us instead of invading other countries.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Reactions to the Record, 3

A few odd ends, then I'll get to serious blogging about the various sessions.
  • Jerry McBride is the Head Librarian of the Stanford Music Library and Archive of Recorded Sound. During his session on the history of recording, he played a 78 using a steel needle, then again using a cactus spine. The effect was astonishing: a 90% reduction in surface noise. It's also true that the sound was more muffled than with the steel needle. This solved, for me, the mystery of why the Nimbus Prima Voce 78 transfers are so quiet: they use cactus spines for needles. I am not advocating that people buy Prima Voce transfers, which are problematic in other ways, but it was good to find out why they are so damn quiet.

  • I was talking about this with a couple of record collectors after the symposium ended. One of them mentioned the notorious Studio 8H, from which so many Toscanini concerts were broadcast. It is famously dry on record, to the detriment of Toscanini's orchestral sound. One of the collectors told me he has a 1932 Philco radio that he wired to take input from non-radio sources. He says that played through the Philco, the Toscanini concert recordings are anything but dry.

  • I was waiting, just WAITING, for some wag to make a Joyce Hatto joke. I was even prepared to BE that wag. But Nicholas Cook, from CHARM, was a presenter, and he is one of the scholars who outed Hatto, so I think there was no way anyone was going to joke about her. He has, I'm sure, heard enough Hatto jokes to last him a lifetime.

    I got in a good one anyway. When George Barth, one of the organizers, was loading a piano roll onto a reproducing piano, the hydraulics, er, air compressor was operating, and some random pitches got played in random durations. There was some snickering from the assembled multitudes, to which I responded "What, you haven't heard the Webern piano rolls?"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Kind of Thing You Can't Say in the Chron

Well, that's what blogs are for.


Alex Ross writes today about heartening changes in the American orchestral landscape: rising ticket sales, a move away from hiring European conductors who prefer the 19th century repertory, imaginative programming here, there, and everywhere.

At the end of the posting he refers back to Michael Tilson Thomas's arrival in San Francisco eleven years ago, and I had to sigh. This year's programming had some interesting music never heard here before, much of it conducted by others. A new piece by Steven Stuckey had to be bumped at the last moment because, oops! Steve Reich has a round-number birthday.

The upcoming season has a Brahms festival (innovative!). We will get to re-hear MTT's program about his grandparents, The Thomashefskys.

But I can find no references in the press release to Philip Glass's round-number birthday or the even more impressive round-number birthday that I hope Elliott Carter will be celebrating. I guess we can expect a few more works to be bumped when somebody at the Symphony notices these impending anniversaries. A guest is conducting the Magnus Lindberg commission. As usual, SFS can't be bothered with living Bay Area composers who aren't named Adams.

I understand why MTT wants to examine Brahms in depth. I'm also glad of the many educational initiatives that are under way. But I wish MTT would go back to the great programming on which he built his SFS reputation. At this point, that reputation is what there is; the innovative programming is largely a thing of the past.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reactions to the Record, 2

Jonathan Bellman, of Dial M for Musicology was also at Reactions to the Record. He posts evocatively about the experience of the conference; I agree with him about absolutely everything.

However, I need to tell you that his playing, which he modestly passes over, was great. He played a Schubert Moment Musicaux (lovely), his own painstaking transcription of Scott Joplin's embellished piano-roll version of Maple Leaf Rag (jaunty), and, best of all, a fabulously blue rendition of Gershwin's Piano Prelude No. 2, moody, dark, full of rubato. I am not much of a Gershwin fan, but this I loved.

Did we recognize each other as fellow bloggers? Well, no, not until after it was all over, when he mentioned Dial M in passing and I said "I link to you!"

Reactions to the Record, 1

I'm going to be blogging this week about the three exhausting, exhilarating days I spent at Stanford's symposium Reactions to the Record. The overarching topic of the symposium was what can be learned from the performance styles we hear on old recordings, with "old" loosely defined as pre-WWII. But this led to discussions of the meaning of notation, style, taste, the composer's authority versus the score's authority versus the performer's authority, and how musicology's views of authenticity and authority have changed in the last 30 years or so. The presentations were almost uniformly excellent, and two great concerts showed how some fine musicians are applying what they've learned. I've got many pages of notes and will have quite a bit to say.

Friday, April 13, 2007

I thought it was a joke...

...when I started referring to Subaru Outbacks as lesbomobiles.

Handel on Stage

Greg Sandow has an interesting piece up on Handel's operas. His comments on Handel are factually accurate, though he seems to have missed the fact that Andrew Huth, writing in the Guardian, is making many of the same points he makes. I think Greg leaves out a few things, though.

For one thing, we're living in a golden age of Handel performance. It's worth remembering that his operas were probably not performed between the 1760s and the revival of Rodelinda in 1932. These days, it's unusual not to have a couple of Handel performances during the season in a major city. Locally, we've got Flavio running at Pocket Opera and Belshazzar's Feast at Philharmonia Baroque. Ariodante is coming to San Francisco Opera in the 2007-8 season. I wish I were in London, where I could see seven in four months.

Now, about that 1932 Rodelinda revival. Kirsten Flagstad sang in it. No, I can't believe it either, but it must have been something to hear: astonishing nobility of tone and no idea of the style. While Greg is right that most ornamentation you hear in Handel today is more discreet than you would have heard in the 1740s, it's important to keep in mind why that's the case. For one thing, singers today are being trained in a variety of styles. They're expected to be able to sing vocally-appropriate roles from three centuries. Thus, they're not spending all their time learning how to sing like an 18th c. virtuoso. It takes time to reconstruct a historical style!

We're still living in an age when there are multiple pools of singers with the skills for Handel. Members of the Pocket Opera cast probably won't be singing at the Met, but they can sing Handel. Very likely ten years from now there will be more and better vocal improvisation, too. While there's not an opera fan alive who wouldn't pay folding money to hear Farinelli in full cry, we can't go back to committing human rights violations to ensure a steady supply of a particular voice type.

Lastly, there's the matter of the goings-on in the opera house during Handel performances. I, for one, would love to have an adventurous opera company recreate that atmosphere; I'd travel to be in the audience. But I think it would be a little like the Society for Creative Anchronism: the 18th century as we would have liked it to be, not as it really was. We don't want all of 18th century London, anyway: dust, wood fires, open flames for lighting, sewage on the streets, rotting food, horse manure all over the place, smallpox. And much as I'd like to sometimes experience the opera house as it was in the 18th century, sometimes I'd like to sit quietly and just listen. Handel's operas are great even without visual spectacle and Farinelli-esque vocal fireworks.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Will wonders never cease.

Seriously off-topic, but whatever. I have to talk politics at least annually.

Around 2002, I started to keep a Web page of reasons to vote George Bush out of office. Funny how very relevant it still looks today, eh? Maybe it's time for me to start something similar for 2008, but in the meantime, take note of a few stories from the last day or two. I file them under the departments of corruption, incompetence, and pure politics, and none of them even touch on the war in Iraq.
  • Mr. NeoCon himself, Paul Wolfowitz, arranged a job in the State Department for his girlfriend. Well, it did mean she was no longer under his supervision at the World Bank!

  • Wolfowitz was "greeted by boos, catcalls, and cries for his resignation" at the World Bank when he talked to his colleagues about the breaking scandal. I love the part of the story where he apologizes for his mistake. He will never apologize for the Iraq war, for which he bears plenty of responsibility.

    This is also choice:

    He also appeared a victim of his own declaration that he would bring a new era of accountability to the bank. He boasted that he had doubled the staff of the public integrity division so it could prosecute cases of graft against corporations and bank employees, stirring resentment throughout the bank that he saw them all as corrupt.

  • The Justice Department has found practically no evidence of voter fraud, which the Republicans think is a huge problem.

  • Despite this, it appears that a federal panel altered the conclusions in its report to match conclusions the Republican party would like. Don't confuse us with the facts!

  • The White House "may have lost" email relating to the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys general who, among other things, appear not to have been pursuing allegations of voter fraud with quite the commitment desired. Fellows, did your Exchange server crash, or what? Are you saying you don't have backups?

  • Political advisors to President Bush may have used Republican National Committee email accounts for conducting official government business. C'mon, you guys, were you really unaware that was improper?

  • The above two stories are directly related: the White House says that email missing from RNC email accounts may be about the attorney general firings.
These links are all to the NY Times, and you may need Times Select for access to the stories once they're a week old.

Updated late on April 12, when I added the second and last bullets above.

Sun Quartet at the Hillside Club, Berkeley

I've never heard the Sun Quartet, but based on their membership and the program, I'm looking forward to hearing them tonight, April 12, at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. Ian Swensen is a top-notch player whom I last heard at Music@Menlo, playing second violin in the Brahms Quintet; Anna Pressler is a member of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, an instant guarantee of excellence; Anna Kruger belongs to the Lark Quartet as well as the Sun; Andrew Luchansky has all sorts of great experience.

I love the program: Haydn's Emperor quartet, Carter's Elegy for string quartet, and, finally, the monumental Brahms Piano Quintet.

It's tonight, Thursday, April 12, at Berkeley's Hillside Club, which is on Cedar St. above Shattuck. $15, and a great bargain at that price.

Lots Going On

I have a couple of longish posts percolating; we'll see when they get published. In the meantime, plenty out there to think about. I direct you to these stories:

Updated April 12 with info about Tommasini's Met article

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Not Bigotry?

Patrick J. Smith's definition of bigotry must be different from mine, since he doesn't see the Vienna Philharmonic's hiring practices as bigoted. Or maybe he just hasn't read what various members of the orchestra have to say about women and non-whites:
  • "[We] only take white men to play white music by white composers for a white audience," which is reliably attributed to Werner Resel at a time when he was chairman of the orchestra

  • Concertmaster Rainer Kuchl said publicly that he can tell a player's sex without seeing the player. (Wow, someone should turn him loose on the "Joyce Hatto" recordings!)
For more incriminating quotations and damning information, refer to VPO Watch.

I note, by the way, that this Patrick J. Smith (The Penitent Wagnerite) is not the Patrick J. Smith who was editor of Opera News for many years.