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??