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.