Saturday, March 29, 2008


San Francisco Symphony told me last September that a redesign of their web site was in the works. It is finally on line, and a vast improvement it is: better layout, better typography, much prettier, and best of all, much, much easier to navigate.

I would take issue with the amount of orange on white print, and somehow the search box has gone missing. Well, it didn't always work right. I remember searching on "Thomas" and getting two results. Maybe a new, improved search box is in the works.

Friday, March 28, 2008

On Right Now, As In, NOW

To celebrate the fact that Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner are finally singing together, the Met is streaming Tristan und Isolde live. Go to the Met home page and click the obvious graphic. You need RealPlayer (sorry).

Peter Gelb just told the audience that DVo & HeppB are both singing - hooray! The originally-scheduled Brangaene seems to be ill, however, so first-cast member Michelle DeYoung is taking the performance.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Today's Times contains an amazing article about the reconstruction of a sound recording made in 1860.

Yes, you read that right: 1860, seventeen years before Thomas Edison received his phonograph patent. The catch here is that the recording, in the form of a phonautogram, was never intended for playback. It's a visual record of sound, made by a device called a phonautograph. Here's how the Times describes the phonautograph, which is illustrated in the article:
[The] device had a barrel-shaped horn attached to a stylus, which etched sound waves onto sheets of paper blackened by smoke from an oil lamp. The recordings were not intended for listening; the idea of audio playback had not been conceived. Rather, Scott sought to create a paper record of human speech that could later be deciphered.
Scientists from Lawrence Berkeley Labs figured out how to interpret the sounds thus recorded - a fragment of the song "Au Claire de la Lune." The article includes an mp3 version of the phonautogram, which is about on par with the Mapleson cylinders for audio quality, as well as a perfectly lovely 1931 rendition by an unidentified soprano.

The oldest phonautograms known are from 1853 and 1854!

If you're interested in old recordings - and who isn't? - the Association for Recorded Sound Collections is having its annual convention at Stanford this year, starting, uh, today - and there will be a session devoted to the phonautograph and phonautograms. I wish someone had told me about this a month ago, because I would have planned to attend some of the sessions.

In any event, read, and enjoy, the thrilling detective story that is the Times article.

Oh, Just Review It

Tim Mangan and Justin Davidson were sent the same CD, then asked by email not to review it. Tim revealed that the CD is the Ahn Trio's Lullaby for My Favorite Insomniac, which certainly sounds like the easy-listening version of whatever the Ahn normally performs.


I finally started reading the most talked-about book of 2007, and today I find that there are 70,000 copies in print. Uh, wow! Congratulations to the proud author.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Even the Lazy

Bernard Holland reviews the Brentano Quartet in today's Times - well, no, actually he doesn't. The quartet is allowed only 97 of the 307 words in the review. The other 210 are ruminations on the matter of late style in Brahms, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn, and those 97 words tell me only that the Brentano is young and energetic. Holland closes with this gem:
One awaits the Brentano’s late period. As excess energy wears off with the years, I think it will settle into the possibility that music making, like life, is more than trying hard; it also incorporates the easygoing, the calm, the gently ironic — even the lazy.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Compare and Contrast 8

Reviews of Kaija Saariaho's string quartet Terra Memoria:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Is It Too Late?

There's something truly operatic about watching a powerful public official tumble into the abyss, his promising career wrecked by a scandal.

But I've been wondering if 48 is too late to start a singing career, because Eliot Spitzer may shortly be in a position to make his Met debut singing soprano.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Family Affair

I picked up tickets for this week's San Francisco Symphony concert with some trepidation, because on the program were two works by MTT hisownself. The last piece of his I'd heard, the overblown, 40-minute Island Music, for two marimbas, had sounded like something produced by an undergraduate composer who'd listened to way, way, way too much late 70s Glass and Reich. Not only that, it sat on a concert between masterpieces, a selection of Berio's tiny, marvelous violin duets and Janacek's monumental Glagolitic Mass.

Not to worry: last night's selections between them were half the length of Island Music. One of them, the cheery occasional piece Agnegram, was sufficiently amusing, with its Bernstein-like gestures, klaxons, and jokes, that I'd be happy to hear it again. It's a superb little curtain-raiser.

Notturno, written in honor of the now-retired Paul Renzi, long the principal flutist of the San Francisco Symphony, is another matter. MTT's comments indicate that it's an hommage to a type of work that has fallen out of favor, the light virtuoso showpiece. The composer cites hearing concerts by Jascha Heifetz and other performers of that era, on which he'd heard this kind of chestnut. He was aiming for a similar feel.

You need two things to make this type of work convincing: the ability to write an unselfconscious showpiece and a virtuoso who can bring it off with perfect aplomb and plenty of panache, without breaking a sweat and making it all sound very, very easy.

In an age of irony, meeting that first requirement is tough, and Notturno doesn't make it. On one hand, each section is derived from some past style of popular showpiece. First the English countryside goes by, and you think of Ralph Vaughn Williams. Then there's a tarantella and you think of sunny Italy. Then there's a section with Spanish rhythms, and you think of Bizet and how much better he was at writing Spanish-style music. You also think of De Falla and his superb settings of Spanish folk songs. Toward the end, you start thinking it's too long. If you're going to try to pull this kind of piece off, you need to do it better than Notturno does it.

On the other hand, you read the program notes and discover the piece has a subtext about the life of a performer. I'm glad I read the program notes after the concert. Advice to the budding composer: some things are better left unsaid. Resist the temptation to talk too much about your own music, especially when you are really good when talking about music by other composers.

Then there's that second requirement, the virtuoso performer with fingers of steel. Well, Paula Robison played all the notes, as far as I could tell, but the rest? She flubbed attacks left and right, not quite landing squarely on an astonishing number of pitches. Lots of air in her tone, which was nothing special to begin with, and I'm not talking about the section where the flutist is clearly supposed to play with a lot of air in the tone, trying to sound faintly bluesy. Tim Day, the Symphony's principal flutist, would have played this piece much better.

The first half of the concert closed a meandering and unfocussed performance of Sibelius's compact Seventh Symphony. A friend tells me he heard pastel colors and a song all of one piece; I heard shapelessness, lack of forward movement, and a conductor without much feel for the work's tricky rhythmic organization. Esa-Pekka Salonen - you knew I'd say this - played it much more persuasively in Los Angeles this past October.

I'd like to say that my seat in the center terrace had something to do with how the Sibelius came off, because of the wide variation in sound quality in different sections of Davies. But the Shostakovich Ninth, which closed the program, sounded crisp and clear and focussed. Whatever happened in the Sibelius was what MTT intended.

And hearing the Shostakovich was like listening to another conductor entirely, one fully in charge and in command of the composer's rhetoric. And an entertaining rhetoric it is, all cheeky circus music in the outer movements, with much beautiful solo work for the winds in the inner movements. Hooray for Carey Bell, Catherine Payne, and especially principal bassoonist Stephen Paulson; they were all great. Joshua Kosman's review gets it just right, and in more detail.