Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recommendations Sought

John Banville, a reader of this blog, asks:
Could you recommend a recording of Schubert's Sonata for Arpeggione, but with viola instead of cello? I have the britten/rostropovich and martha argerich/ mischa maisky versions. Thank you!
Anyone have suggestions? I've heard the Arpeggione on record only, with cello, not recently, and don't know a thing about recordings of it.

Compare and Contrast 18, Italian Soprano Division

I forgot to mention in my comments on Tosca that while Adrianne Pieczonka has fine technique and a warm voice of ample size - certainly more than enough for the role - she doesn't sound at all Italian. Certainly this is partly owing to the fact that her Italian is on the loose side, lacking in bite - and so is her voice. It doesn't have the same kind of vibrancy or edge as an Italian spinto or dramatic soprano. I commented similarly on Heidi Melton and Stephanie Blythe in the Verdi Requiem. Excellent singers all, idiomatic in Italian, no.

Let's take a look at a few YouTube performances of the greatest of all Verdi arias, "Tu che le vanita," from Don Carlo, starting with Sena Jurinac. She sang many Italian roles in her long career, bringing to them deep understanding, a magnificent line, and pinpoint accuracy. But the weight of her voice isn't quite right, she doesn't have a strong chest voice, and the cool tone is more Strauss than Verdi. Still, it's an admirable performance, sorrowing and dignified.

Next, let's listen to a pair of legendary mid-century Italian sopranos, Renata Tebaldi and Anita Cerquetti. The cut of their voice couldn't be more Italian; both voices are big, rich, and vibrant, deep as a river.

Tebaldi is usually considered past her best by 1964, when this was recorded, but what I would give to hear the aria performed this way.

And here's the meteoric Cerquetti, in her very brief prime:

Missing from this collection, because she never recorded it: Rosa Ponselle, who sang Elisabetta in the 1920 Metropolitan Opera premiere. Now that must have been something, as young as she was. (And she was in good company, with Adamo Didur as Philip, Giovanni Martinelli as Don Carlo, Giuseppe de Luca as Rodrigo, and Margarete Matzenauer as Eboli.)

Musical Minds, on PBS's Nova

Tonight most PBS stations will broadcast a Nova show called "Musical Minds." It's based on Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia - perhaps "musicophilia" was too long or too risque-sounding for Nova. In any event, it's a great book and this sounds like a fine show.

Senator Franken!

Minnesota Supreme Court rules; Norm Coleman concedes. Presumably Gov. Pawlenty will sign the election certification.

If you're wondering why this went on so long, the initial count was so close - with Coleman in the lead - that Minnesota law required a recount. Coleman suggested at the time that Franken should concede. The statutory recount put Franken ahead, and Coleman spent a lot of money and time going to court. Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com has had some interesting analysis of why Coleman's quest might have been worth it to him and the Republicans regardless of the outcome. And a friend tells me that if Coleman had pursued the matter into the federal courts, he could have gotten Justice Alito to hold the initial hearing.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tosca, San Francisco Opera

Tosca is one of the trio of Puccini works that opera companies haul out like clockwork, along with La Boheme and Madama Butterfly. They're crowd-pleasers, they sell tickets, and there aren't too many expensive principal roles to fill.

I've seen all of them at least three times each, and as far as I can tell, Tosca is by far the hardest to bring off, Boheme the easiest. Where youthful singing, enthusiasm, and half-decent direction are more than enough to carry Boheme successfully from attic feast to teary conclusion, Tosca is full of improbabilities, requiring oversized personalities and sharp conducting to persuade or move.

I vaguely think I saw Tosca at some point in the 1980s, though nothing in the San Francisco Opera archives is particularly ringing a bell. I caught the current Thierry Bosquet production when it was new in 1997 and again in 2004, both times with a vocally threadbare and underpowered Carol Vaness doing her Callas imitation, accompanied by weak tenors and the genial Scarpia of James Morris or the ramrod stiff, in a bad way, Mark Delavan. Genial - now there's a word I don't want to see describing Scarpia.

The current revival, starring debuting dramatic soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, debuting baritone Lado Ataneli, and returning tenor Carlo Ventre, had more promise; Pieczonka's roles include Sieglinde, at least guaranteeing enough volume and heft to make a credible go at the Roman diva. I was unimpressed with Ventre in a previous appearance, but Ataneli's been getting good reviews elsewhere.

Imagine my concern upon seeing this in handouts from the Opera about Pieczonka:
The Los Angeles Times praised Adrianne Pieczonka's role debut as Tosca with Los Angeles Opera in 2008 as "radiant," noting that "she sang with effortless purity and impeccable taste."
Uh-oh. Radiance, and even purity, I can deal with, but impeccable taste? Tosca's not the Countess Almaviva, after all; what I want to hear is little filth, and some willingness on the part of the soprano to get down and dirty with the music and the role. It's melodrama, for crying out loud.

And unlike you (and you, and you, and you), I've even read the Sardou play, La Tosca, a Sarah Bernhard vehicle, on which the opera is based. Is it ever a melodrama. But it's in five sprawling acts, where Puccini's opera is a compact three, and thus there's more time and space for fleshing out the leading lady.

And you know? She needs it. Do you buy anything about how she behaves in the opera? She's deeply religious, insanely jealous, easily led, untrustworthy, and stupid; she's also an unworldly innocent (who spends nights with her lover), beautiful, passionate, and a great singer. She tries to out-maneuver Scarpia, with disastrous results. She gives away a secret moments after her lover makes it clear he's willing to endure any pain to protect that secret.

Are we supposed to admire this woman? Or love her? Well, maybe. And maybe a singer with the stature of Callas, Tebaldi, Price, or Olivero can persuade us that there's something admirable or lovable about her - a tough sell with me, given her capricious and foolish behavior, which leaves four dead.

The performance I saw got off to an unpromising start: the Scarpia chords sounded, the curtain went up, and there stood Angelotti (Jordan Bisch). Yes, stood. The libretto says he's supposed to hurry in, nearly running. This isn't a difficult stage direction to observe, requiring no special equipment or effects. And it was just the first of several misjudgments in the act on the part of director Jose Maria Condemi - which surprised me, because I've read a number of good reviews of his work.

The Cavaradossi/Tosca scene was something of a shambles. If Tosca's not a tigress - and Pieczonka was more of a domesticated than a wild cat - if there's not much chemistry between the lovers, if the conductor doesn't have the music well in hand...well, sadly, that's what the first half of Act I was like. Whatever errors Condemi made, Marco Armiliato's slack account of the score did much more damage. Joshua Kosman called it fluid; I call it soggy.

Worst of all would be the thudding, leaden performance of "Recondita armonia," Cavaradossi's first-act aria, which should be a lilting, radiant paen to Tosca's beauty. It wasn't, and Carlo Ventre, in coarse voice, sounded worn and verging on wobble. He got an enormous hand, though, presumably for holding the last note for a long time. Sigh; audiences!

With Scarpia's entrance, the opera perked up quite a bit; Lado Ataneli has a beautiful voice and succeeded in projecting menace and power through a sinister manner, with no snarling, sneering, or moustache twirling. He could have used somewhat more vocal firepower; in the Te Deum, the orchestra, which was loud without projecting the right feeling, occasionally swamped him.

Act II pretty much played itself, thanks to Puccini and his librettists, and came across well despite Armiliato's continuing lack of tension. Here Pieczonka came into her own, given a situation that unambiguously calls for the fierce Tosca. And her "Vissi d'arte" was magnificently sung, with a firm line and sterling control. She deserved the ovation that followed. Ataneli continued to be the menacing and sadistic Scarpia; I can carp only about the amount of time he spent casually sitting on a corner of his desk, which seemed...undignified.

Ventre improved in Act III, or perhaps he was saving himself. "E lucevan le stelle" was acceptable, though not what it could have been in the hands of a great (or better) tenor. Personal to CB: JS is a fine clarinetist, but remembering your past glories at SFO, I missed you in the intro to that aria. The opera hurtled to its harrowing conclusion even without Ataneli's vicious magic, ending better than it began.

How I'd like to see a great Tosca performance some day. And perhaps we'll get one, with Nicola Luisotti in the house.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Maazel's Mahler

If you're interested in hearing what outgoing NY Phil maestro Lorin Maazel can do with Mahler, and you didn't catch any of it during his NYPO tenure, HDTracks to the rescue! You can download live performances, for a price, here.

Joana Careiro on the Radio

If you're not partying or at the Opera seeing Netrebko Sunday afternoon, you can catch the broadcast of a Berkeley Sympony concert conducted by incoming music director Joana Carneiro this past December - her audition concert. Nice program, too:

Beethoven, Syphony No. 5
Lindberg, Chorale
Adams, Shaker Loops

Sunday, June 28, 2009, 4 p.m.
KALW 91.7 FM or

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Social Networking Redux

Every now and again I pop over to the San Francisco Symphony's newish social networking site just to see what's happening. They're up to 748 members as of today. I see that guest performers are being encouraged to join; Sasha Cook and Alfie Boe, who were in last week's Iolanthe performances, both have memberships.

And Ms. Cook's page shows one of the inevitable issues with social networking sites: A dropped-in come-on from one of the onlookers. It's hard to tell if the fellow is speaking to Ms. Cook or to the woman who posted immediately before him (a member of the Symphony Chorus who has excellent taste in mezzo-sopranos), but it's a bit disconcerting.


If you want to know what people are interested in, who better to tell you than the modern Oracle? And, luckily, Google provides a page called Google Trends, which tracks what people are search for. You can find Trends at http://www.google.com/trends.

At the top right now is "maria belen shapur photo" - that would be the Other Woman in Mark Sanford's life - trailed by various searches related to Farah Fawcett's death.

Catching up fast, though, are stories related to the reported death of Michael Jackson, one of the very biggest stars of the last 35 or so years. I remember him fronting the Jackson 5 as an adorable adolescent in "The Love You Save" and other '70s hits. I haven't heard much of his music in the last 30 years, though I am aware of huge hits like the Thriller album. And of course I've watched his descent into the grotesque with a mix of fascination and horror, between the drugs, the payoffs to the parents of young boys, and whatever the hell happened to his appearance. I have to admit, that's one autopsy report I'd love to read.

I Just Hope They Don't Have Any Serious Theological Disputes During the Sermon.

Pastor Urges His Flock to Bring Guns to Church, NY Times, June 25, 2009.

Betty Allen

The mezzo-soprano Betty Allen has died, age 82. A contemporary and college classmate of Leontyne Price's, and a member of the same generation of outstanding African American opera singers, she sang at NYCO, the Met, and other companies; she spent 40 years on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music. Read the Times obituary here.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up, Republican Division

  • Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina goes down, down, down, to Argentina and then in disgrace. "Hiking the Appalachian trail," right.
  • Senator John Ensign of Nevada, active in the Promise Keepers earlier in his life, also had an affair, with a former staff member.
I don't actually give a damn who these guys were sleeping with, though I hope neither got blackmailed as a result. In the case of Sanford, it certainly is a problem that he was out of the country without having made the proper arrangements for a transfer of power in case of emergency. I feel for their families. It's hard enough when a spouse breaks whatever agreements a couple has, whether about monogamy or how money gets spent; it's truly awful when you're a public figure and suddenly your name is in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons.

Democrats do the same things, of course; see Edwards, John; Clinton, William Jefferson; Spitzer, Eliot. It's just that Democrats as a group have spent a lot less time in the last 30 years than Republicans claiming to be the pro-family, pro-morality party. Right.

Update: I also care that Sanford apparently used government funds to pay for his little jaunt to Bueno Aires. He's repaying the state, but, a little ethical lapse there, eh?

Bay Area Composers IV: David B. Doty

David B. Doty's Steel Suite, played on harpsichord by Jonathan Salzedo of the Albany Consort. Click the button labeled Recordings. The recordings are intended as demos; the composer tells me he'd love it if someone would learn and perform or record the work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The First Flute

The NY Times reports on the oldest known musical instrument, a flute estimated to be 35,000 years old. Me, I bet that percussion instruments were in use earlier, because it's just so easy to bang two things together, but this is very neat indeed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Women (and Men) Who Love Too Much, Operatic Version

Porgy, meet Countess Almaviva; Countess, Porgy.

Gulda and Others

I'm slightly surprised that ACD hasn't run across Friedrich Gulda before. Gulda was among Martha Argerich's teachers, and the one she credits as most influential. I know him through his individual, well-worth-a-listen Beethoven sonata recordings. I'm sure his Bach is also excellent, given his approach to Beethoven.

Back in 2005, ACD and I went around a few times about Sergei Schepkin's Goldberg Variations. To my way of thinking, if you're going to take the big anachronistic step of playing Bach on the piano, you might as well go all the way with it. Schepkin is insanely and wonderfully flamboyant, uses the pedal freely, and dresses up every variations with wild embellishments; I love every note. That improvisatory feel does seem very 19th century to me, in the sense that 19th century piano virtuosos were expected to be able to do this kind of thing; listening to some early Chopin on record, you find embellishments there. And, hmm, there are how many 18th c. manuals on embellishments?

Back to Gulda. For anyone looking for off-the-beaten-track Beethoven sonata recordings, take a look at the French pianist Eric Heidsieck, whose EMI complete set used to be available cheap from FNAC (cheap even with shipping to California), Andrew Rangell (on Bridge, and he has a new release out this month), and Ernst Levy (on Marston, if they're not completely sold out). For that matter, I'm in the market for Frederic Lamond. Who he, you ask? A Scottish pianist considered the greatest exponent of the Beethoven piano sonatas in the generation before Schnabel. You can sample him on YouTube, in fact.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Memo to San Francisco Opera Copy-Editors

The name of the opera is Il Trovatore for a reason, and no one goes to see this opera primarily because of the baritone singing the Count:
Verdi's audience favorite Il Trovatore features intense action and an all-star cast led by Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

Bay Area Composers III: Clark Suprynowicz

Composer Clark Suprynowicz's videos are hosted on his personal web site, so the videos can't be embedded here. But you should definitely check out a few clips of his opera Chrysalis, which Berkeley Opera performed a few years ago:
I missed this and I am so sorry! Happily, Suprynowicz has a number of major works in development, with hoped-for premieres over the next two years:
  • Caliban Dreams, an opera with libretto by Amanda Moody. The composer and librettist are in discussions with Berkeley Opera and the 6th St. Playhouse in Santa Rosa for a 2011 premiere. Caliban Dreams will feature tenor John Duykers.
  • The Machine, an opera with libretto by Mark Streshinsky, planned as a January, 2011 premiere at The Crucible in Oakland, and featuring bass Kenneth Kellog, whom you may have seen at San Francisco Opera in the last couple of years.
  • A musical in development with playwright Tanya Barfield, about the black revolutionary movement of the 1960s.
Watch his web site for more information on those works!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

L'Oiseau de Feu

Here's birthday boy Igor Stravinsky conducting the end of The Firebird, London, 1965, in a lovely and soft-grained performance:

Today's Google logo should eventually be on permanent display here.

Bonus clip: Stravinsky conducting sometime in the 1920s. Silent footage with the orchestra in cramped quarters. The composer made some records in the 20s and 30s with the Walter Straram Orchestra; could this footage be from one of those sessions? Do you have any idea what the work might be?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Online Music Journalism Roundup

Alex Ross had a few wry comments the other day about the state of journalism in general and class music criticism in particular. San Francisco Classical Voice may have been the first site of its kind - we're ten years old now - but we're not going to be the last. Here are the nonblog online music journalism sites I know about:

Garden of Memory 2009

It's that time of year again: the summer solstice is approaching, and at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, diverse Bay Area musicians perform new and recent music. As usual, there's a fantastic lineup.

June 21, 2009

Chapel of the Chimes
4499 Piedmont Avenue
Oakland, Ca

5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Admission is $15 general, $10 students and seniors, $5 kids under 12 (kids under 5 are free). Tickets available from www.brownpapertickets.com.

For information, contact New Music Bay Area at listings@newmusicbayarea.org or call Allison at (510) 228-3207.

Read all about it here.

Twas the Eighteenth of April...

No, wait, it's not. But this ride - er, run - will get the BSO some amusing attention, and maybe a few bucks, assuming nothing unfortunate takes place:
On June 29 and 30, fourteen Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians, several of their family members, and six staff members will run the 150 miles between Symphony Hall in Boston and the Main Gate of Tanglewood in Lenox, to mark the beginning of the 2009 Tanglewood season, which opens with an all-Tchaikovsky program led by BSO Music Director James Levine on Friday, July 3. BSO bassist Todd Seeber and BSO violinist James Cooke, both longtime runners, conceived of the Run to Tanglewood.

At 2 p.m. on June 29, Todd Seeber, introduced by a brass fanfare and starter pistol, will lead several runners from the Symphony Hall Stage Door on the first leg of the run. The run will continue over 32 legs, each between 3.5 and 6 miles, and will arrive at the Tanglewood Main Gate at approximately 1:15 p.m. on June 30, in anticipation of the first BSO rehearsal at Tanglewood on July 1 and the opening night program on July 3. Each leg will be run by one to four participants. The average run pace will be 6 miles an hour or 10-minute miles.

The Lenox community will be invited to Tanglewood to cheer the runners on the final leg of the run from the Tanglewood Main Gate to the Tappan House on the Tanglewood grounds. “Being avid runners ourselves and knowing several other orchestra musicians who love running as much as we do, Todd Seeber and I thought it would be incredibly fun to organize a relay run from Symphony Hall to Tanglewood as a unique way to bring attention to the opening of the 2009 season,” said James Cooke, BSO violinist. “We’re thrilled that the staff agreed and that a few of them will be joining us for the race. With friends and family sponsoring us, we also hope to raise a few funds for the BSO.”

For further information about the run or to sponsor a runner, visit tanglewood.org/relay.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Postscript to Pastreich

The following was posted in the comments to an earlier posting, and I thought it should be more prominently displayed:
As musician representatives who worked closely with Peter Pastreich during his consultancy for the Honolulu Symphony in 2004-05 (one as orchestra committee chair, another as symphony board representative, the third as union business agent), we feel an obligation to respond to and correct the misinformation that has been put forward about his time here.

Mr. Pastreich spent most of a season investigating, then searching for and helping implement solutions to some of the deep dysfunction undermining the HSO. The Musicians already had a high opinion of his skills from his previous work here; during his 2004-05 consultancy, our respect for his honesty, commitment and ability only grew. His recommendations - which did not include his being offered any position with the organization - seemed to us exactly what was needed, at long last, to improve the HSO’s situation. So, when the Symphony's executive director left suddenly (not at Mr. Pastreich's instigation) and the board's executive committee unanimously asked him to step in as interim, we wholeheartedly concurred.

Unfortunately, key board leadership had an unexplained change of heart and withdrew their support for what the executive committee had decided, so Mr. Pastreich felt he could no longer accept the position and ended his consultancy. It was as a result of his leaving (and not the other way around, as mis-reported by the SF Classical View) that several key board members (including the State's former First Lady, the head of one of the largest banks in the State, and the publisher of the major newspaper) then resigned. These board members (some of the most important community leaders the Symphony has ever had on its board) had wanted to help the HSO meet its challenges and appeared to welcome Mr. Pastreich's experience, vision, and insight. Once support for Mr. Pastreich was withdrawn, however, we musicians could easily see why they would want nothing more to do with a board that would refuse a great opportunity when it was offered.

It's sad to us that such a well-documented and, for us, quite painful story about a pivotal time in the Honolulu Symphony's history could be so twisted around and portrayed as fact. The truth is that Mr. Pastreich's involvement led to one of the most hopeful moments in the HSO's recent history, and we continue to have the greatest respect, affection and gratitude for Mr. Pastreich and what he tried to achieve here.

-Ken Hafner (trumpet), Steve Flanter (viola), Steve Dinion (percussion)
I guess the newspapers articles I cited got things very wrong, and I'd love to see other reporting on the subject.

Post-Script to Auf wiedersehn, Donald

There could not possibly have been enough time and money for it, but I wish you'd done Gurrelieder instead.

Compare and Contrast 17

Sharp disagreement over the new San Francisco Opera production of La Traviata and over the merits of the singers:
My tickets are for the second cast (Futral/Lomeli/Powell), but it looks like I will have to see Netrebko, et. al., as well.

Friday, June 12, 2009

St. Lawrence String Quartet: Three Free Concerts

The St. Lawence String Quartet is giving three free concerts at noon (more or less) on the Stanford campus, Palo Alto.
Dates: June 29, July 1, and July 3, 2009
Place: Dinkelspiel Auditorium
Time: 12:15

Limited seating, come early!

The Sharing Solution

My friend Emily Doskow has a new book out, The Sharing Solution, written with Janelle Orsi. It's a legal and practical guide to sharing housing, childcare, transportation, gardens, and other useful resources. Here's a list of the events associated with the publication of the book.

Launch Party at the Berkeley Ecology Center
Friday, June 12 at 7:00pm
2530 San Pablo Avenue
Berkeley, CA

Reading at Laurel Book Store
Thursday, June 18 at 7:00pm
4100 MacArthur Blvd (Laurel District)
Oakland, CA

Reading at Copperfield’s Bookstore
Thursday, June 25 at 7:00pm
138 North Main Street
Sebastapol, CA

Reading at A Great Good Place for Books
Wednesday, July 8 at 7:00pm
6120 LaSalle Avenue (Montclair neighborhood)
Oakland, CA

Reading at Diesel, A Bookstore
Wednesday, July 29 at 7:00pm
5433 College Avenue (Rockridge neighborhood)
Oakland, CA

Authors’ Sharing Solution Blog:
Sharing Solution Facebook Site:
Articles/Blogs about The Sharing Solution:
East Bay Express: Share and Share Alike: Two Berkeley authors explain how sharing can save the planet
The Story of Stuff Blog with Annie Leonard: The Sharing Solution
MacArthur Metro book review
And watch for us in the July issue of Sunset Magazine and an upcoming issue of Ode Magazine

Keeping Score, 2009

The MTT/SFS series Keeping Score continues with three programs this coming October, 2009. Check your local PBS listings for times. (I'm half-expecting these to be on at 2 p.m. on Sundays or some other time when I'd rather be outdoors, given my local PBS station's lack of commitment to concert music.)

Episode One: With Symphonie fantastique, Hector Berlioz confessed his unique artistic vision. It was a symphonic love letter, part psychological self-portrait, part fantasy about the life of an artist, and it expressed his passion for a beautiful woman. Michael Tilson Thomas searches for the inspirations of Berlioz and his music, from his roots in the French Alps to the theater in Paris where the work was premiered, and reveals the musical secrets of this greatest of Romantic symphonies.

Episode Two: American composer Charles Ives created his Holidays Symphony as a haunting sonic portrait of New England at the turn of the 20th century, at turns sentimental and chaotic. Michael Tilson Thomas explores the riddle of Ives the loyal son and businessman versus Ives the musical maverick who made listeners confront their understanding of what music could be. Filmed on location in New England and New York City.

Episode Three: The Fifth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich is the story of a fall from grace and redemption. Shostakovich was the golden boy composer until, virtually overnight, his patriotism was questioned and condemned in the most public way possible. Written in 1937 in Stalinist Russia, the Fifth Symphony marked his triumphant return. But the question remains: what did the composer mean to say with this enigmatic music? In scenes filmed in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony offer clues to unlocking Shostakovich’s musical secrets and make the case for how this symphony may have saved his life.

More at Keeping Score.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Revenge of the Dead Indians: In Memoriam John Cage

Other Minds presents a showing of the not-quite-documentary The Revenge of the Dead Indians on Monday, June 15. It's a benefit for Other Minds and includes a reception.


In Memoriam John Cage
a composed film

Monday, June 15, 2009
6:00pm Reception
7:30pm Screening
Sundance Kabuki Cinemas
1881 Post Street, San Francisco, California

This celebration of John Cage's work, influences, and thoughts is neither a feature film nor a documentary: footage of Cage and performances of his music are assembled together with 42 personalities, from well-known artists to market vendors and street cleaners, "found" video and audio landscapes, and theatrically directed readings. The result is an unexpected and fascinating combination of intellectual thought, viewpoints, and opinions.

This one-time film screening, a benefit for Other Minds, includes complimentary beverages and hors d'oeuvres and a chance to hear well-known figures such as Noam Chomsky, Merce Cunningham, Frank Gehry, Ellsworth Kelly, Yoko Ono, and Frank Zappa pay tribute to John Cage.

Seating is general admission. Tickets are available on a step-scale at $15, $25, and $50.

Directed by Henning Lohner
Music: John Cage
Cinematographer: Van Carlson
Length: 129 min

Trailer and Details: http://www.otherminds.org/shtml/Deadindians.shtml
Buy Tickets Now: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/67527

View the trailer right here:

Personal to DR

Hey - you know what you said in the program for the Verdi Requiem about overinterpreting Tristan in the 1998 run? I attended three of those performances, and I will tell you that two of them were excellent and one lingers as one of the greatest performances I've ever heard of anything, anywhere.

Auf wiedersehn, Donald

After 17 years as music director of the San Francisco Opera, Donald Runnicles is at the end of his contract and off to other important posts, as music director of the Deutsch Oper Berlin and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For his farewell gala, he led a performance of the Verdi Requiem - an odd choice, or an interesting one, depending on your standpoint, because his clearest strengths have been in German and 20th/21st century opera, from Mozart to Wagner to Strauss to Janacek to Messiaen and Ligeti. Oh, and that most Wagnerian of Italians, Puccini. I've heard improvement over time in his Verdi, capped by the fine Simon Boccanegra last year, and it'll be interesting to hear what he does with the summer La Traviata production, but maybe not as interesting as what Nicola Luisotti would do with Traviata.

The company announced a starry group of soloists, Patricia Racette, Stephanie Blythe, Stefano Secco, and Andrea Silvestrelli, with Blythe and Secco, who will be singing in staged operas next season, both making their house debuts. Racette took ill and cancelled the day before the performance, replaced by Heidi Melton, the young dramatic soprano who has been dropping jaws left and right since appearing as Marianne in Rosenkavalier and the goddess Diana in Iphegenie en Tauride a couple of years back.

Given this particular mix of ingredients, the big surprise in last Friday's performance was just how badly it started out. The first third sounded under-rehearsed, badly balanced, and badly coordinated. The orchestra, making a rare on-stage appearance, overwhelmed the chorus, which was pushed to the rear of the stage and sounded both distant and timid.

The great hallmark of a Runnicles performance is typically its clarity and orchestral transparency; here, all was mud and murk. I was seated in Row T of the orchestra, and in one early passage the winds sounded as though they were floating 15 feet over my head while the chorus sang from somewhere out on Franklin Street. Throughout the first third, even when chorus, orchestra, and soloists were on the same beat, they sounded so out of harmony as to be in separate worlds. Even the first fierce "Dies irae" didn't quite jell.

Somewhere around the "Quid sum miser" or "Rex tremenda" Runnicles finally got everything under control, and the Requiem came together at last, with shape, confidence, and momentum. From that point, my program has numerous exclamation points and positive notes. The chorus sang with more gusto and audibility, reaching a peak a light and joyous account of the complicated fugue in the Sanctus. I still would have liked an addition 50 or more singers on stage, and - I'm guessing - more rehearsal time; there was no comparison with how the SF Symphony Chorus sounded in the same piece a couple of years back with James Conlon.

Each of the soloists had some great moments during the Requiem, though as a group they weren't perfectly matched. Stefano Secco has a good voice, thought sometimes too tight at the top; some fire in his temperament; a deep sense of the words; and the ability to maintain a good line, and yet - his voice is simply built on a smaller scale than those of the other soloists. He was never inaudible, but neither was he able to match or properly balance them. He was at his best in the "Ingemisco," singing operatically and gorgeously, and in the Lux Aeterna.

This performance marked bass Andrea Silvestrelli's third appearance at the War Memorial Opera House. His first was a decade ago, singing Oroveso in an ill-starred Norma whose vocal highlights were Gary Rideout as Flavio, handily outsinging the Pollione, and Anna Caterina Antonacci as a dramatic Adalgisa with a very short top. When I saw him cast as Fasolt in last year's Rheingold, I felt dread, but to my surprise, he made a superb and moving giant.

I now think that perhaps the German repertory suits him better than the Italian The start of the Requiem found him in the same hollow voice I remembered from Norma, but as he warmed up, he found the tonal core of his voice and produced some beautiful singing, especially in soft sections. Like Secco, he understands the style and sings with operatic fervor.

He doesn't always mind the conductor, though. At one point, Runnicles gave him a look and a gesture, and kept glacing at him every few seconds for the next half-minute or more. I would say "Bad bass!" but I agreed with him: it would have been a good point to push ahead a bit more.

Blythe and Melton, with their creamy, well-blended sounds, made an interesting contrast to the men. Both the men impressed me as very Italian, with some edge and vibrancy to their voices and a native-speaker's feeling for style. Blythe and Melton sound as though they'd be more at home in Strauss than in Verdi, and both have a more "international" - or maybe I mean American - sound than the men.

The two women made a well-matched team, nonetheless, whether in the treacherous section in octaves or singing in thirds elsewhere. Their voices are similarly expansive, their styles bold. Melton made a good run at getting the words out in the "Libera me" and floated exquisitely elesewhere.

In the end, while the evening came together satisfactorily for the last 2/3 - and while I understand the conductor's desire to showcase the chorus - I have to wonder if we might have had a better celebration with an all-German evening. Melton, Blythe (a superb Fricka in Seattle's Ring), and Silvestrelli, at least, would have been in their element.

I'm sorry to even be saying "Auf wiedersehn" to Donald Runnicles. I've admired his conducting deeply, and I'm with him in prefering the adventurous programming of the Rosenberg era to the preponderance of Italian staples and conservative commissions that I fear we're in for in the Gockley. (See Joshua Kosman's exist interview with Runnicles, in the Chron a couple of weeks ago.) I hope we'll have him as a regular guest conductor, for Britten, for Strauss, for Wagner, for Janacek, for, well, anything he'd like to do.

Bay Area Composers II: Pamela Z

Excerpts from Pamela Z's The Pendulum:

Pamela Z's web site; Pamela Z's YouTube channel.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Oakland Symphony Chorus Summer Sings

Tuesdays at 7 PM - July 7 through August 11, 2009. 

Join us this summer as OSC continues the longest-running Summer Sing-in series in the Bay Area - continuous since 1993!

July 7 - Haydn: Theresien Mass
Karla Lemon - Guest conductor throughout the Bay Area & soloist for many years

July 14 - Beethoven: 9th & Mozart: Coronation Mass
Michael Morgan - Music Director, Oakland East Bay Symphony & Festival Opera; Principal Conductor,Sacramento Philharmonic

July 21 - Verdi: Requiem
Lynne Morrow - Music Director of Oakland Symphony Chorus & Pacific Mozart Ensemble; Associate Professor, Sonoma State University

July 28 - Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Buddy James - Associate Prof. of Music, Cal State East Bay, Director of Choral & Vocal Activities, conductor of the University Orchestra

August 4 - Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms & Schubert: Mass in G
Vance George - Former director of San Francisco Symphony Chorus

August 11 - Handel: Messiah
Magen Solomon
 - Conductor & Faculty, University of Southern California; Artistic Director, San Francisco Choral Artists

First Covenant Church
4000 Redwood Road

$10 per evening, or $50 for a season pass.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up, NY State Version

Almost as much fun as Rod Blagojovich, but that problem was solved fairly easily. This has been going on for forty years or so. Note that I also live in a state suffering from terminal legislative paralysis, for different reasons from NY.

Monday, June 08, 2009

A Hearty Welcome...

...to Jonathan Vinocour, who has been appointed principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony. And deepest thanks to Yun Jie Liu, who has most ably held the position of acting principal violist since the 2005-06 season.

Compare and Contrast 16

  • Missy Mazzoli, quoted in the Times: “So many composers would write for orchestra at the drop of a hat,” Ms. Mazzoli said. (She has a commission from the ISCM for the League of Composers' new orchestra.)
  • Kyle Gann, writing at PostClassic: "I'm not one of the composers who's allowed to write for orchestra much, so I don't teach orchestration." He elaborates on what he means by that, but I gotta say, I hear real differences among "I'm not allowed," "I don't get the commissions others do," and "I'm not going to write for orchestra on spec because I think it'll never be performed." There's also the little matter of his claim that a composer needs to be on the orchestral commission track by grad school. It'd be interesting to track the last decade's worth of new-music commissions in US orchestras and see who is getting commissioned. Also up for discussion, at least in my book: were both Elliott Carter and John Adams on that track in grad school?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Drucker Retires

A few years back, I was surprised to discover that Stanley Drucker, a stalwart of the New York Philharmonic during my childhood, was still playing. I figured he'd been around for 30 or 40 years.

Was I ever wrong. After sixty (60!) years with the New York Philharmonic, 49 of them as principal clarinetist, Stanley Drucker is retiring at the close of this season. He's played 10,200 concerts (!!!) under 10 music directors and countless guest conductors.

These are all astonishing numbers. Has any other orchestral musician come close to them? Read all about Stanley Drucker in Daniel Wakin's NY Times article today.

Bay Area Composers I: Michael Kaulkin

Michael Kaulkin's "American Standard," for clarinet and piano, performed by clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt and pianist Julie Nishimura at the University of Delaware on May 10, 2009.

Michael Kaulkin's web site. Check out, especially, the excerpts from his recent string quartet "City Walks."

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Flatpack Opera?

Yes, it's an opera performed in an Ikea store! If you're in Wembly, London, it's not too late to attend. It's free; dates are June 2, 3, 9, and 10 at 7:30 p.m.

Schedule Conflict?

Via Terry Teachout and the Santa Fe Opera web site comes word that Ning Liang will not be appearing in The Letter, an opera with music by Paul Moravec and libretto by Terry Teachout, because of "a scheduling conflict."
Color me doubtful. The production dates and cast were announced in the spring of 2008, and planned well before that. You can see Ning Liang's planned opera performance schedule in OperaBase. She has a good chunk of time alloted for The Letter.

Late withdrawals happen for a number of reasons:
  • Illness, such as the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's withdrawal from Doctor Atomic
  • Change in the role's requirements, per this press release about how Richard Paul Fink replaced Friedemann Roehlig in Doctor Atomic (Reading that press release now, one wonders about it.)
  • Unprepared artist. A tenor turned up in San Francisco a few years ago for Don Carlo without having learned the part in French. Hello? Didn't you and your agent read the contract?
  • Artistic differences/singer doesn't get along with director/singer hates role requirements/director doesn't like singer.
A scheduling conflict is hard to swallow. Opera contracts are negotiated years in advance, and while I've heard of singers withdrawing from one production because of a great opportunity elsewhere, what's going on that is more important than the premiere of a new opera?