Monday, April 27, 2009

American Voices

Reviewing the Stephanie Blythe and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

I admit it, I wrote a really, really bad review of a piece, complete with some snark. I did it only because the composer, Amy Beach, has been safely dead for some 65 years. (Spoiler: I liked Covered Wagon Woman, the Blythe vehicle that was the headliner for the program.)

Prior to this concert, I'd heard about ten minutes of Beach's piano concerto, which sounds vaguely like Tchaikowsky....but with less of his organizational abilities. The piano quintet is...well...slightly embarrassing. Fragment after fragment after fragment, with no shape to speak of.

I can't believe the CMSLC couldn't find a better American piano quintet, or a better chamber music piece by an American woman for their program. If they were looking for something older, little-known, and more conservative, how about music by Halsey Stevens? Henry Hadley? Walter Piston? Roy Harris? If by a woman, Miriam Gideon or Ruth Crawford (both atonalists, of course)?


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Coming Up (Some Very Soon!)

The Bay Area has more great choral programs than any one person can get to! Here are three more:
  • International Orange Chorale, By Local: Songs of California Composers, including  Georgia Stitt, Eric Tamm, Shaffer McGee, IOCSF co-director Zane Fiala, Jake Heggie', Emma Lou Diemer. David Conte, Halsey Stevens, Eric Whitacre, and Robin Estrada. May 1 at 5 p.m., 55 2nd St., SF, in the Solarium; May 2 at 7:30 p.m., St. Mark's Lutheran, SF.
  • California Bach Society, From Tallis to Tavener, a concert celebrating the English choral tradition. Works by Tallis, Byrd, Holst, Purcell, Finzi, Gibbons, Stanford, and Tavener. A glorious tradition and a glorious chorus; what could be better? May 1, 8 p.m. at St. Gregory of Nyssa, SF; May 2, 8 p.m., at All Saints in Palo Alto; May 3, 4 p.m. at St. Mark's in Berkeley.
  • Chora Nova, The Triumph of Love,  Orff, Catulli Carmina and Brahms, Liebeslieder Waltzes. May 24, 7:30 p.m., First Congregational Church, Berkeley.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Letters to the Editor, Operatic Edition

Attila and the Ring

At the end of one of the intermissions, Margaret Juntwait asked the Met audience about the connection between Verdi's Attila and the Ring. She just gave the answer, which was something about versions of the Norse myths in which Gutrune goes on to marry a barbarian named Attila. 
I might have put it differently. The Nibelungenlied was one of the sources of the Ring, and in it the heroine Kriemhild marries Attila after the murder of her husband Siegfried by her brother's vassal Hagen. Attila becomes her path to revenge, which she achieves by burning down the hall in which the visiting Burgundians are sleeping. Sound familiar? 

Coming Up

A selection of upcoming performances in the Bay Area:
  • String quartets by Michael Kaulkin, Alexis Alrich, Claire Twohy, and Clark Suprynowicz; performed by the new Eidolon Quartet at Berkeley's Crowden School. May 9, 2009, 8 p.m., $15
  • Pocket Opera peforms Handel's Alcina at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in SF on May 3, and  Moniuszko's The Haunted Manor, on April 26 (tomorrow!) at the Legion of Honor and on May 9 at the Julia Morgan in Berkeley.
  • AVE (Artist's Vocal Ensemble) sings a program called California Fusion, which looks at music that has influenced California's musical palette. I do not recognize any of the composers listed in the press release as a Californian, but they're a varied bunch! Poulenc, Vaughn Williams, Sixten, Gesualdo, "and others." They're performing at St. Mark's, Berkeley, on Friday, May 29 at 8 p.m. and St. Ignatius, San Francisco, on Saturday, May 30 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20/$10.


Based on the splendid Norn scene, I was going to assert that James Levine had gotten over whatever put him to sleep during Die Walkuere two weeks ago, but he just got to "Zu neuen Taten" and seems to be dozing a bit again. I think it must sound fantastic in the house, though. The orchestra is just gorgeous, and Irene TheorinKatarina Dalayman,* yum. Christian Franz, eh. 
Whatever, if you're looking for a station, try OperaCast's Met Broadcasts page. The highest-bit-rate stream available seems to be Bartok Radio, so my stream is Hungarian.

*Note to self: check the cast page before posting.

Music Festival, Continued

Steve Smith emailed me after that last blog posting to say "And you know that Bard will also have a performance of Les Huegenots, right?" No, I did not! When on earth was that last performed in the United States?? At the Met in 1915, maybe?? It's on July 31 and August 7 and 7 p.m.; August 2 and 5 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25, 55, 75.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

If I Could Go to One Music Festival This Summer....

The 20th Bard Music Festival is called Wagner and His World. If *&($#)@) Blogger provided an easy way to do cut tags, I'd post the whole festival schedule, but it doesn't. So you'll just have to be satisfied with a summary, at least until Bard manages to post the festival web site.
The dates are August 14-16 and August 21-23; there are twelve concerts, which will include excerpts from all thirteen (yes, 13!) of Wagner's operas, plus music by (deep breath) Auber, Bellini, Berlioz, Brahms, Bruch, Bruckner, Chabrier, Chausson, Cherubini, Chopin, Czerny, Debussy, Duparc, Dvořák, Flotow, Robert Franz, Goldmark, Hermann Goetz, Granados, Griffes, Halévy, Hérold, Hiller, Herzogenberg, Humperdinck, Joachim, Liszt, Loewe, Marschner, Mendelssohn, Messager, Meyerbeer, Nietzsche, Offenbach, Palestrina, Alexander Ritter, Rossini, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Spohr, Spontini, Johann Strauss Jr., Richard Strauss, Arthur Sullivan, Suppé, Weber, and Wolf. Yes, all of them.

The performers include the American Symphony Orchestra (Leon Botstein, cond., natch), Christine Goerge, Jeremy Denk, Gary Lehman, and a bunch of other fine folks. In addition to the concerts, there are a whole bunch of lectures. Ticket prices are very reasonable, running $25 to $55.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

In Our Name

Horrifying reports being published this week about torture under the Bush Administration: how torture came to be used, who approved it, etc. You can forget former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's claims late last year that it was "unfounded rumor" that he had anything to do with this: he approved the use of torture his very own self.
Paul Krugman commented earlier this week that the people who approved and carried out the torture are monsters. I don't know that I agree with that; ordinary people are completely capable of monstrous behavior while having the most normal lives.

In any event, I hope these people are investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I don't want torture and abuse committed by or for the United States. Torture is just plain wrong, not to mention being an ineffective means of interrogation.

Rose Update

This article has information on the current status of the Rose. The situation appears to be improving, but note the quotations toward the end of the article, from a letter written by the Rose's chairman of the board:
Thus, the Rose has no director, no curator, no education director, no administrator, no funding stream and no program. Exhibitions close on May 17. The Provost says samplings of the permanent collection will go on view beginning July 22. Curated by whom we do not know


Cabrillo's 2009 schedule is out. Here's a list of the composers being performed:  Enrico Chapela,   Brett Dean, Avner Dorman, Osvaldo Golijov, David Heath, Matthew Hindson, Lee Johnson, Ingram Marshall, Kevin Puts, Joby Talbot, Magnus Lindberg, James MacMillan, Aaron Jay Kernis, and George Tsontakis. Oh, well! No music by women worth performing this year, I guess.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Royal Hunt of Trance

If you've succeeding in finding your way here, click this link to hear "Trance" 5 Part 1, by Michael Gordon, which is being performed this Wednesday at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC (I won't be there). Then find your way to the dreaded one who chants "Death of classical! Death of classical!" and on to the home of the all-knowing shellfish, if you want free tickets.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, just wait. Read your favorite music bloggers. It will come to you.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Friday, April 17, 2009

Correction to The Audition

Okay, I managed to completely misread the mail from the Met. The Audition will be shown in theaters at 3 p.m. ET this Sunday (12 noon on the West Coast).

I still can't attend; it's just a terrible time. But here's the URL for figuring out whether it's playing anywhere near you:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Audition

I've already heard good things about the new documentary The Audition, which is about "the intense pressures young opera singers face as they struggle to succeed in one of the most challenging professions in the performing arts," according to a Metropolitan Opera email I received a couple of days ago. The film will be broadcast on public TV this Sunday, April 19, and 3 p.m. Yeah, sigh, mid-afternoon in early spring, when we'd all prefer watching TV to enjoying a park, the waterfront, or working in our gardens. But do try to catch it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Zzzzz 3

Music@Menlo, whose programming I usually love, has announced its 2009 schedule. (Annoyingly, there does not appear to be a page that lists all programs and all repertory; you have to click too many times to see what's being performed.)
In a marvelous feat of daring, this year's concerts focus on Mendelssohn, who turned 200 not long ago. Now, I love Mendelssohn and feel like he gets something of a bad rap because of his incredible facility, early genius, and the sheer prettiness of his music. Still. Does the Bay Area need two complete Mendelssohn string quartet cycles within six months? Do we need a second? third? performance of the Octet? Do Wu Han and David Finckel follow what's going on out here from their base in New York City? Given the Intertubes, they should, they?

Yes, I know what you're thinking: the Pacifica's Mendelssohn is likely to be more incisive and interesting than the Alexander's - and you won't have to get up early on a Saturday to hear them play. (Your mileage may vary on Robert Greenberg, whose lectures accompany the Alexander's performances. M@M has tremendous-looking talks at the festival, called Encounters.) Yes, my mouth actually does water at the the thought of the St. Lawrence and Pacifica playing the Octet. And yes, there are a couple of typically weird and intruiging Music@Menlo concerts, like the one that includes some of the incidental music to you-know-what - but for piano, four hands - plus some Ligeti, a work by Spohr, and a Schumann piano trio.

There are Carte Blanche concerts of the Brahms violin sonatas, the Romantic cello sonata, and An Evening with Menachem Pressler, in which the pianist will play some four-hands music with Wu Han, Beethoven Op. 110, and Schubert's B-flat piano sonata, D.960, a demanding program at any age - and Pressler is 85. I confess to some concern over that, given problematic outings over the last few years with other pianists of Pressler's generation.

So, I'm torn. Yes, I'd love to hear these programs, because, well, great music and excellent performers. Each of the central programs is being performed three times, so presumably I will be able to get tickets. But oh - with all that talent on tap, how I wish the programming were more daring.

She's Really Retiring.

A real touch of sadness today, as I received a notice about the San Francisco Opera Guild's fund-raiser in honor of Frederica von Stade. The great mezzo announced in 2008 that her last performances would be in 2010, and that date is rapidly approaching. SFO gave Marilyn Horne a grand send-off, with a gala in her honor, and I hope there will be a similar concert for Flicka.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Happy Birthday, GFH!

Handel died 250 years ago today. In honor of the day, a clip from the opera that made me a fan: Rosemary Joshua sings Semele's "Endless pleasure, endless love" in the 1996 Aix-en-Provence production, which I saw a decade ago in London:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Copy-Editors Wanted, Part Umpty-Ump

Joshua Kosman's review of last week's San Francisco Symphony concert has this headline on
DeBussy's 'Ibéria' brings out Denève's best


Patelson's is closing.

It's what you would expect: years of losses, many competing sources for sheet music, a second generation without the business skills of the first. The old saw - what counts is location, location, location -no longer works in the new economy. And Patelson's, around the corner from Carnegie Hall, has the best location.

I purchased a lot of music at Patelson's between about 1971 and 1982, and I imagine music students living in NYC bought even more. Being able to browse the stock was eye-opening. You mean flute players can do that?

Goodbye, and thanks.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Dear Jimmy:


For once I remember that there's a Met broadcast today, so I put on Die Walkuere. I probably won't make it past Act I. Lehman, strained; Meier, strained; Tomlinson, strained; Levine, sleeping. For crying out loud, this is propulsive and exciting music. I told a friend the other day that she'd probably never get to hear Donald Runnicles conduct Wagner at the Met because of Levine's lock on Wagner performances there. Maybe I can persuade her to come to SF for our Ring.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Zzzzzzz 2

The other day, Daniel Wolf at Renewable Music had a posting called Too Big to Fail. He starts off with the banks' role in the current economic crisis, and goes on to discuss the dominant role of a few sizable institutions - orchestras and opera companies, mostly - in our musical life. It's an excellent posting, and I hope you'll read the whole thing. But here's the nut graf for what I want to say:
The more egregious effect, however, is on the music itself. A commission for orchestra is rare and an orchestra is a large and expensive institution, and composed as it is of a mass of people with well-practiced working habits, even quite talented people, tends to learn new things slowly, so rehearsal time is precious. Consequently, presenters tend to play safe with the orchestra, the musical institution "too big to fail," and play it safe by choosing composers with track records for playing it safe and working successfully with other orchestras (remember second grade: "plays well with others"? diplomacy is ofen a real substitute for real musical interest). The chosen few composers, in turn, protect their track records by providing just enough novelty ear candy to maintain the aura of the new while fundamentally remaining in the safety zone in terms of both performance difficulty and audience receptivity.
Manyof you might remember the Mostly Mozart Festival of yore, under Gerard Schwarz: lots of Mozart, with ventures into Baroque and other Classical-era repertory. Then along came Louis Langree a few years ago, and suddenly you could find mini-festivals of Magnus Lindberg, daring stagings of rare operas, and so on, along with a revitalization of the orchestra and lots of new guests. Last year's MMF included the American premieres of works by Saariaho and Lindberg; in 2006, I heard the premiere of Lindberg's violin concerto and ninety minutes of his chamber music with ICE.

A few weeks ago I got the MMF's announcement for this year's festival, and I wanted to cry. They're having a back-to-the-roots year, and if I don't cry, I will simply fall asleep. They're focussing on Mozart, Haydn, and Mendelssoh, like everyone else this year. There's a fair amount of Brahms, too. OH GOD PLEASE SPARE US.

The most daring work on the schedule appears to be John Adams's A Flowering Tree. I have already stated rather loudly what I think of it, but consider Adams within the context Daniel Wolf outlines, and you'll see some reasons why I wish MMF had chosen some other recent work to feature. Adams is safe; he is well-known and widely commissioned; hardly anyone will be upset to have one of his big pieces on the schedule.

Is there other 20th or 21st century music to be heard? Well, I see Britten's Serenade for Horn, Tenor, and Strings and Ligeti's Chamber Concerto (on a program with Haydn and Mozart). ICE is doing an all-Adams program.

And that's it: the kind of scheduling that puts me to sleep and gives classical music its reputation for timidity and living in the past. You would have to pay me to attend.

Prom 63


Xenakis, Nomos gamma (15 mins)
Rachmaninov, The Isle of the Dead (20 mins)

Xenakis, Aïs (18 mins)
Shostakovich, Symphony No.9 in E flat major (25 mins)

Leigh Melrose baritone
Colin Currie percussion
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson conductor

Time of the Season

It's Good Friday. Give your favorite Parsifal an outing today!

I Know More About Eva Turner than You Do, NPR. Srsly.

I got excited email from a friend last week about a story she'd heard on NPR, about a new CD set called, she thought, "Records of Opera," which had something by Eva Turner on it. Oh, I replied, it's not new; it's EMI's "The Record of Singing."

Today, a Google Alert brought me a link to the NPR story. I wound up sending cranky email saying it's a condensation and reissue of a previous set, and it's misleading to claim that it's new.

Then I listened to a couple of the recordings, and I have to wonder if it's NPR or Every Mistake Imaginable that screwed up the date on Turner's recording of "In questa reggia." It's not the famous recording made in London in 1928 at Methodist Central Hall. It's one of the inferior records made in Milan in 1926. It's also one of the worst and most muffled transfers I have ever heard; all of the surface noise is removed and so is the gleam and thrust of Turner's great voice, which was then at or approaching its peak.

JEEZ. It's just not a good idea to let EMI get their hands on this stuff sometimes. There are multiple excellent transfers of the 1928 recording available, on Pearl's complete Turner set, and (ta-da!) EMI's 1988 single CD Turner recital. There are better transfers of the 1926 recordings as well, on Dutton and Pearl. Seriously, Nimbus could do a better job than this. Maybe I will send more cranky email.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

For Want of a Nail

The very week that Alex Ross writes a terrific article about the great Marian Anderson and the current status of African Americans in classical music, the news comes from Juilliard that they will have no new students in their Music Advancement Program, which provides music education for poor minority children. In New York City, that mostly means African American and Latino children.

What makes this particularly sickening is the amount of money Juilliard needs to continue the program as it has been for some 20 years: $400,000, which is chump change in the philanthropical world. I also note that Juilliard's annual operating budget is around $50 million.

The Juilliard School has a whole bunch of illustrious graduates out there, working musicians with important careers. You're telling me that the school's fundraising staff can't persuade these musicians to collectively come up with a measly $400,000 to keep this program going? I know times are tough all over, but if that's the case, they should all be ashamed of themselves.

Might Have Beens

Joan Sutherland, age 23, sings "O hall of song!", better known as "Dich, teure Halle!", in an Australian vocal competition, 1950. Note the fine diction (in the moth-eaten MacFarren translation) and the beautiful, non-droopy line:

The story goes that she discovered her high register when Richard Bonynge had her vocalize up above high C without telling her how high she was singing. After hearing this recording, I don't believe it for a second.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


The week after the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously allowed marriage equality in that state, Vermont's legislature has approved marriage equality and overriden the governor's veto.


At the Ades/classical guys concert the other night, the program indicated that there would be a Q&A session after the concert with Gaffigan and Josefowicz. We went downstairs and into the orchestra section, only to find that the program contained a "misprint." Okay, I don't call the inclusion of four incorrect lines of type a "misprint," I call it an "editorial mistake," but I was disappointed - because, for once, I had a question.

"Ms. Josefowicz, have you played Saariaho's Graal Theatre, and would you consider a program of Concentric Paths and Graal Theatre to be something you'd attempt?"

Those pieces would make one great pairing. If you don't believe me, get the $3.97 Amazon download of Concentric Paths and one of the two recordings of Graal Theatre.

No, NO, Not That!

The California Symphony's next concert includes a performance of Pictures at an Exhibition, a piece I'm not all that fond of. Their press release is not encouraging:
Boldly going where no orchestra has ventured before, the California Symphony will take audiences on a virtual space odyssey, when it presents the world’s first live symphonic concert in 3-D on May 3 and 5, 2009.

Commissioned by trailblazing Music Director Barry Jekowsky, the unprecedented event will feature Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition performed to a suite of high-definition videos created by noted astronomer and visualizer Dr. José Francisco Salgado of the prestigious Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
I've been to a couple of concerts where the music was accompanied by videos, and, you know, I just find the visuals a big distraction. Apparently some people think that since we live in such a visual world, an auditory event needs visual accompaniment. Me, I'm perfectly happy to watch the musicians and conductor, and don't want or need much more.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Ashkenazy and Gaffigan Conduct the San Francisco Symphony

Not at the same time, though that might have been fun.

I marvel at Ashkenazy's comparatively limited physical conducting skills and what he conveys (I had an excellent view of him), and even more at the fact that he managed to make Beethoven's 4th piano concerto, the best piece on the program by a long shot, into a bore. He was conducting, not playing; I was in an awkward seat (row C orch, far audience left), a bad vantage point for hearing the soloist well, and he sounded no better than decent.

The opening work, Steven Gerber's 'MUsic in Dark Times" was junk; very trite and uninteresting. I can't believe he used Yankee Doodle in the piece with a straight face, which seems just bizarre to me in this day and age. Boring, tonal, zzzzz.

The orchestra didn't applaud the piano soloist and was at best polite to Ashkenazy and Gerber. That tells me a great deal about their opinions of all three. They went NUTS for Argerich a few weeks ago. I saw that program too and she was magnificent.

It also says something about Ashkenazy that the work that came off the best was "Belshazzar's Feast," a choral extravangaza by William Walton. It is what I think of as great second-rate music, a class of music I happen to like a lot. It's really a good piece, or at least a lot of FUN. I admit that there was a place where he went from extreme grandeur to British cowpat so fast I started laughing - in a good way, of course. The chorus was great (yay, Ragnar!) and John Relyea a very impressive soloist, though he is holding so much tension in his jaw that I thought his head might explode.

This is the second time I've heard Ashkenazy conduct, and both times I've thought him dull and without much in the way of ideas. I'll have more to say about that in another posting, I hope.

The Gaffigan program was a lot better, though...well, the opening Haydn 52nd was not good. Dull articulation throughout the whole orchestra, rhythms without much snap, altogether too legato, with the 3rd and 4th movements much too slow. The minuet, which is marked allegretto, has the spirit and sound of a scherzo and ought to be played like one. The last movement, marked presto, went at an allegro, and again...would have been so much better faster.

The closing Mozart 39 was much better, an excellent performance all around. I don't get how someone with a nice feel for Mozart blew the Haydn so badly - anyone have ideas??

In between was a great performance of Thomas Ades's violin concerto, called Concentric Paths, by Leila Josefewicz. It's a wonderful piece, complex, beautiful, full of ideas, which I'd heard a couple of years ago at Cabrillo, and I was so glad to hear it again. She is touring it and will be playing it at Cleveland next season.

P. S. Joshua Kosman nailed both of these concerts, though the Haydn I heard wasn't as good as what he apparently heard. He reviews Ashkenazy's here and Gaffigan's here. SFMike at Civic Center talks about the Gaffigan program here.

Coming Up

Too much for one person!
  • Pamela Z Productions presents two ROOM chamber concerts, on Saturday, April 11 at 8 p.m. and on Sunday, May 17 at 8 p.m., both at the Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street (between Harrison & Alabama), San Francisco. Admission is $10, which is great value for the money. Pamela Z herself performs in both concerts, with different groups of musicians
  • The Emerging Cinemas Network will be broadcasting various operatic events, including the Ring from Valencia, Spain, conducted by Zubin Mehta, Eugene Onegin from the Opera de Paris, and Benvenuto Cellini from Salzburg
  • At Stanford, the early music group Cut Circle presents music of Ockegham, which you just don't hear every day. In fact, I think I have never heard any Ockegham live, and this program includes his Missa L'homme arme. The concert is at Memorial Church, on Wednesday, April 22, at 8 p.m.  Adults, $34, Stanford students, $10.
  • The following day, there's a symposium at Stanford on the composer's music, at Margaret Jacks Hall, Building 460, 4th floor, starting at 9 a.m. This is free and open to the public. For more info, email
  • Also at Stanford, their annual Music and the Brain Symposium, on April 17 and 18. Free, open to the public, and fascinating. You must register in advance, at 

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Russian Chamber Music at the Hillside Club

I've blogged before about the terrific chamber music series at Berkeley's Hillside Club. They've got a fabulous program tomorrow night, Sunday, April 5, at 7 p.m.

The California Chamber Players Piano Trio performs:

Piano Trio in F minor, Op.14 (1900)
Piano Trio in C minor, Op.7 (1957)
Piano Trio in D Major, Op.22 (1908)

A program where I've only ever HEARD of one of the composers, which would be Taneyev.

If the name seems familiar, see the Marston Records release From the Dawn of Recording.

Not only is this a fascinating program, but the Hillside Club has great music at great prices. Full details:

Sunday, 5 April at 7:00 pm
Admission $15 ($10 for HSC members and Seniors)
The Berkeley Hillside Club
2286 Cedar Street
Berkeley 94709
Info: (510) 845-1350

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Everybody Deserves a Fair Trial

And it seems that former Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska didn't get one: because of prosecutorial misconduct, all charges against him are being dropped and the Justice Department won't seek a new trial. The prosecution seems to have withheld important information from the defense.

He would have been re-elected if it hadn't been for the misconduct and his conviction; he lost by fewer than 4,000 votes. I'm not a fan of his, but I am definitely a fan of fair trials, and I'm glad to see this conviction thrown out.